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North Suburban News

Winchester Piloting Program to Eliminate Standardized Tests

Aug 31, 2018 08:17AM ● By Dan Marra

WINCHESTER - It’s been the stereotype of schools for as long as formal education has been around. Teacher speaks in front of a classroom, students listen, take notes and at the end of the lesson there’s a test. 

That test has taken many forms over the years. In Massachusetts, it’s known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or, more commonly referred to as the MCAS. It has been the staple of standardized tests in the Commonwealth for the past 25 years – using the scores to rank school districts, evaluate teachers or test a student’s knowledge.

It’s that last point that many teachers and school administrators have questioned over the years. But if Dan French is able to convince the state, the MCAS may be no more. French is the Executive Director of the Center for Collaborative Education and on the board of the MassachusettsConsortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA).

The consortium consists of seven school districts, including Winchester, which is looking at performance assessments as a better alternative to judging a student’s understanding of a topic than a standardized test.

“Standardized exams, like the MCAS, test low-level skills,” said Dr. Judy Evans, Superintendent of the Winchester School District. “They test skills like memorization, which don’t help students grow. By shifting to a performance assessment model, it’s not about the end product but about the process. Standardized tests give you results for one day.”

Irene Diamond, a teacher at the Muraco Elementary School, has been using a more hands-on approach with her first grade students. Looking at a basic lesson plan for students – animals and their ability to adapt and survive.

First it’s the lesson on animals – through videos, books and other tools she uses in her classroom. But instead of asking her student’s to write down what they learned in order to test their knowledge, Diamond asks them to become more creative and uses a more hands-on approach.

Students are asked to make their own animals and explain to the class the skills they need to survive – what do they eat, how do they protect their young, how do they survive.

“It was completely different than anything I’d ever seen,” Diamond said. “The child is able to explain in detail everything we just learned but about their own animal. It’s turning the driest lesson into something exciting.”

By moving towards a performance assessment rubric, instead of an arbitrary standardized test, education departments can give more freedom and flexibility to classroom teachers, while preparing them for experiences they can expect once they leave school.

“Once you leave college most people never take another standardized test again,” Dr. Evans said. “But they need to know how to collaborate with others. By focusing on the MCAS, we’re not giving kids the skills they need to be successful after they finish school. We’re limiting the curriculum and focusing a lot of time and energy on preparing students to take a test.”

The goal in Winchester is to request an MCAS waiver from the state next year. Currently, while working with MCIEA, Winchester students are still required to take the MCAS. Additionally, MCIEA is compiling a dashboard to better assess a district’s strength and weaknesses, focusing not on test scores, but on a student’s safety in school, their well-being, what the school culture is like, accessibility to art and music, how challenging are the classes.

“When done well, performance assessments push kids to demonstrate their knowledge in ways they can be expected to be challenged in the real world,” French said.

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