Form letters don't mean much ... but ...

The problem with form letters is...the people that send them may not even know why they object to, or approve of, whatever it is that they're sending.

That's particularly true when the form letters all come in identical envelopes with identical stamps and identical addresses.

That's the case with some letters I've received in the past ten days. The letters, all run through a copy machine, so they are all identical, ask me to speak out against MCAs tests.

Opponents of the tests seem to think that too much time and money are being spent testing children, that the tests are too difficult, that the tests should not be a graduation requirement, and that the tests are contrary to the original Education Reform Act of 1993.

First, let me say, that I do think there is room for improvement.

For example, I think it is wrong to make vocational students, who spend half their times in class and half in vocational training, take the same test to graduate as students who are spending all of their time in academic classes.

I think it is wrong to force students who are, to say the least, academically challenged, due to physical or mental impairments, to take the same tests. Here, I hasten to point out, the state Department of Education allows, indeed encourages, accommodations for physically challenged test-takers, in terms of alternative methods, and longer testing periods.

And, yes, we could use other measurements-portfolios, special projects, teacher assessments-but these would have to be in addition to a uniform standard of measuring achievement.

The Department of Education is working on some other changes as well. Those changes, including the hiring of a new testing company, I will leave up to the experts, who accept input from all across the state.

I also point out that our teachers are not at fault. The vast majority go to work each day and do their best to encourage our children to do well.

They have accepted the new curriculum, worked with the extra money and effort the state has put into our schools (some $2.8 billion extra dollars spent on public education over the past seven years) and want to graduate students who will be successful in college and on the job.

MCAs scores don't judge teachers, or schools, or cities. They merely show us which students need additional services, additional help, additional skills to make them successful in future years.

I am not going to support efforts to lower the standards we have set for our children in Massachusetts. I have, over the past two decades, worked with high school graduates, and college students, and even college graduates, who don't have the foggiest familiarity with basic skills, including grammar, punctuation, spelling.

The MCAs tests are the result of a decision made seven years ago, by the Legislature, that our high school graduates must be able to meet minimum standards, must be able to demonstrate academic knowledge, must be able to transfer skills learned in the classroom into other situations. The need to set and measure standards was part of that legislation.

We have set new curriculum, to be taught in all of our schools, by all of our teachers, to all of our students. Not just students in affluent neighborhoods, not just students in small classrooms, not just our own students-but all students.

Schools in poor or urban or minority areas have performed as well as, or in some cases far better than, schools in affluent areas. We have to find out what makes them succeed, and replicate it.

The curriculum was designed to make our children think independently, to learn basic skills, and then to actually use those skills to meet the state standards and pass MCAs tests in fourth, eighth and tenth grades.

The Department of Education, frankly, has set these standards lower than many people wanted them. Basic minimums. Passing marks are at the very bottom end of the range of scores designated "needs improvement."

The Legislature, facing the end of the seven-year Ed Reform legislation, once again has to decide what to do, how much to spend, how much to demand, in the years to come. I know that we will continue to provide computers, for example, and decrease class size. There's additional emphasis on early childhood education. All day kindergartens.

We're thinking about changes in special education and looking at mandating education until age 18.

I don't think we can afford not to continue what we've started. Although we cannot prove that spending equals results, we have to remember that our students need to achieve acceptable skill levels and we have to have an acceptable, uniform way to measure those skills.

Right now, the MCAs provide the measure. If a better way comes along, I'll be happy to embrace it.

In the meantime, take a look at some of the work of failing students. It's available from the Department of Education, on the internet, and in our schools. It's work that isn't acceptable.

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