Boston taps high-stakes testing opponent

New superintendent opposes 10th grade MCAS graduation requirement

THE BOSTON SCHOOL COMMITTEE answered the question of who will lead the district by tapping former Minnesota education commissioner Brenda Cassellius to be the city’s next school superintendent. But the answer to that question has raised a new one about the commitment of the state’s largest district to one of the central pillars of the Massachusetts education reform law. In her public interviews in Boston last week, Cassellius said she opposed any use of standardized tests for “individual high-stakes decisions.”

Her comment suggested Cassellius would favor eliminating the 10th grade MCAS graduation requirement faced by all students in the state, a position Cassellius confirmed following her interviews last Tuesday in a tweet that evening.

Every Massachusetts public high school student is required to the pass the math, English, and science portions of the 10th grade test to receive a diploma.

Minnesota ended its use of a high school exit exam under Brenda Cassellius’s tenure as state education commissioner.

Cassellius, who has emphasized her collaborative approach, won points with parent and community groups as well as school committee members, who cited her open-door manner as a welcome quality in a district facing lots of big challenges and a frayed relationship with many stakeholders. But her wariness of standardized testing also helped her win backing from a range of activists and groups.

“We are an organization that is trying to fight the over-testing of students,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of Boston students, parents, and teachers. “So her remarks about standardized testing were right on key.”

Monty Neill, the former executive director of FairTest, a group that fights against what it calls the “misuses and flaws” of standardized testing, spoke on behalf of Cassellius’s candidacy at last night’s school committee meeting prior to the vote.

“Standardized tests are rooted in an outmoded 19th century understanding of learning,” Neill said, praising Cassellius as the only candidate who showed “a clear grasp of learner-centered education.”

Teachers unions have also strongly opposed the use of high-stakes tests, with the state’s largest union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, calling for a moratorium on such assessments.

In confirming her opposition to high-stakes graduation tests, Cassellius said it’s a move Minnesota made under her tenure there as state commissioner. “We ended the use of exit exams in Minnesota,” she wrote on Twitter. At the same time, she wrote, the state “gave the ACT to every student in their high school and paid for it as an equity measure. Students perceived the ACT mattered because it was used for the college admissions.”

The city’s school department has faced criticism over its handling of the superintendent search, and has often tangled with various advocacy groups on other issues facing the system. Against that backdrop, the coalescing of many community groups behind Cassellius, and her support from the school committee, which voted for her 5-2, marked a rare alignment of voices.

“There’s a lot of strange bedfellows in this room together, a lot of people that aren’t typically on the same side of the fence when we’re talking about the Boston public schools,” said Michael Loconto, the school committee chairman. “I think that’s an inflection point for us.”

While Loconto and four other members voted for Cassellius, school committee vice chair Alexandria Oliver-Davila and Lorna Rivera voted for Marie Izquierdo, the chief academic officer of the Miami-Dade school district. Oscar Santos, the head of Boston’s Cathedral High School and the lone local finalist, garnered no support from the committee.

Izquierdo won nearly universal praise from school committee members for her success in closing achievement gaps in Miami-Dade. What tipped the scale to Cassellius in his mind, said Loconoto, was the sense that she had “the ability to rise above the fray” and guide the district “in a way that brings this community together.”

Izquierdo showed up at last week’s interviews clearly having done her homework on issues facing the district. But that may have backfired when she waded into the contentious issue of school closings, which has been hovering over the system and became a flashpoint with the decision announced in December to shut down two high schools in West Roxbury.

Cassellius’s comments on testing, on the other hand, may have boosted her prospects, coming amidst a national wave of rethinking education policy and the role of testing in schools.

Former state education secretary Paul Reville, who was involved in the effort behind the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, which ushered in new state standards and the MCAS test, said the backlash to testing has been strong. “The political winds have changed,” he said. “They’ve even changed dramatically within the Democratic Party. The scales have tipped in a way that makes it actually not surprising to me that a candidate would mention this.”

Reville said Cassellius is a strong candidate with good experience, but he said any effort to backpedal on standardized testing would be the wrong move.

“I don’t believe that state standardized tests are the only or even the best way to assess performance, but they’re a tool in the toolbox, so I’d be disappointed if we saw any movement away from that,” he said.

Lost amidst the current debate, he said, is that high-stakes tests were introduced to bring urgency and focus to schools where students had for years not been receiving an adequate education. “Opponents have characterized testing just as a cudgel,” Reville said. “We introduced it in Massachusetts as a tool for achieving equity. You can’t assess fairness without assessing who’s getting the goods and who isn’t, and in this case the goods are learning.”

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