Turning the Tables

November 14, 1999

Turning the tables:

What if students and parents designed a test for the Board of Education?

By Tim Wise

With the release last week of the latest scores on the MCAS tests, or Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, we are once again being bombarded with warnings about “failing schools.”

The stakes are high; these statewide standardized tests, administered to fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders, will determine, among other things, whether a student gets a high school diploma or whether the state takes over a low-scoring school district.

While the state Board of Education has raised concerns about students’ performance on the MCAS, parents, teachers, students, and others question the quality of the test – and the qualifications of the board’s nine members themselves.

After all, not one of the board’s members can claim any meaningful experience teaching school. None of them had to pass a single test to join the board. And if asked to do so, they undoubtedly would refuse, saying no one test should determine their promotion.

But let’s turn the tables for a moment. How would the board score on an education competency test designed by parents and students? Call it the Massachusetts Citizens’ Assessment System – our own MCAS. Based on the board’s performance thus far, their answers would not be hard to predict.


1. In the phrase Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, what is the meaning of “comprehensive”?
a. Complete
b. Thorough
c. Multifaceted
d. Very long

(Acceptable answers: a,b,c; board’s answer: d)

2. In the phrase Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, what is the meaning of “assessment system”?
a. Appraisal technique
b. Evaluation methond
c. Standardized test
d. Broad examination

(Acceptable answers: a,b,d; board’s answer: c)


Read the following passages from the [Massachusetts] 1993 Education Reform Act and answer the questions that follow each:

3. “The system shall employ a variety of assessment instruments, including work samples, projects and portfolios, and shall facilitate authentic and direct gauges of student performance.”

Which of the following would be appropriate assessment systems?
a. The results of one standardized test
b. A combination of test results, grades, and attendance
c. Multifaceted teacher assessment of student performance
d. Examination of student work that demonstrates competencies

( Acceptable answers: b,c,d; board’s answer: a)

4. “The system shall take into account on a nondiscriminatory basis the cultural and language diversity of students in the Commonwealth and the particular circumstances of students with special needs.”

Which of the following policies would be consistent with this philosophy?
a. Developing a multiple-assessment approach that allows students a variety of ways to demonstrate competency.
b. Avoiding overreliance on standardized test results, which have been shown to contain racial and ethnic biases.
c. Reducing the length of any test so as to make it more accessible to those with special needs.
d. Basing everything on one long test and making everyone take it.

(Acceptable answers: a,b,c; board’s answer: d)


5. Probability: Seven out of eight reading comprehension questions on the 1998 fourth grade MCAS test had selections harder than fourth grade reading level. On such a test, a failure rate of 80 percent would indicate:
a. Our schools are failing to teach our children to read
b. The test was poorly designed to assess fourth-grade reading
c. State test-writers are underperforming
d. Results from other sections of the test may be equally unreliable

(Acceptable answer: b, c, d; board’s answer: a)

6. Deductive reasoning: If the Board of Education tried to correct the fourth grade test the following year by making the reading selections more age-appropriate, improvements in 1999 scores over 1998 scores would indicate:
a. Nothing
b. The test-writers can get whatever results they want by changing the test.
c. The MCAS is improving reading by enforcing higher standards
d. Established national tests are more reliable indicators of proficiency

(Acceptable answer: a, b, or d; board’s answer: c)


7. A low school score on the MCAS is most likely to correlate with:
a. A large percentage of non-English-speaking students in the school population
b. The low income level of families with children in the school
c. A lack of public safety within the schools
d. Bad teaching

(Acceptable answer: a, b, c; board’s answer: d)

8. The best way to address the shortcomings of schools that score poorly is:
a. Reduce class size
b. Work with local school officials to identify and address problems
c. Publicly shame teachers, students, and administrators for their low scores; threaten to take over the school; fire staff; and deny diplomas to their students
d. Equalize access to funding and training
e. Give parents at the “failing” school vouchers for private or parochial schools

(Acceptable answer: a, b, d; board’s answer: c, e)

9. The probable outcome of using the MCAS as a graduation requirement is:
a. Increasing dropout rates
b. Increasing the flight of quality teachers to private schools
c. Increasing the flight of wealthy students to private schools
d. Increasing class and racial inequality in society
e. Elimination of art, music, and other untested subjects
f. All of the above
g. Improved education in the public schools
(Acceptable answer: f; half-credit for a, b, c, d, e; board’s answer: g)


10. Who issued the following statement? “No single test score can be considered a definitive measure of a student’s knowledge. An educational decision that will have a major impact on a test taker should not be made solely or automatically on the basis of a single test score.”
a. Whiny 10th-graders who refused to take the test
b. Anxious parents
c. A special interest group such as FairTest
d. The National Academy of Sciences

(Acceptable answer: d; board’s answer: a,b,c)