Max Larkin and Carrie Jung, WBUR-FM, June 19, 2019
Migration is quickly changing Revere, as it has changed other Massachusetts communities like Lawrence and Holyoke over the past three decades. And that change could call into question what state education officials are measuring when they ask newcomer students to take a standardized test.
Corbett Couts, the principal of the Garfield, says students from different countries enroll every week: El Salvador, Colombia and Cambodia are well-represented among the new arrivals. And once a student has been in the United States for a year, he or she is supposed to take the MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System].
Measuring student performance was a principal goal of the 1993 Education Reform Act — marking its 25th anniversary this week. The text of the law requires the introduction of academic standards,
…which lend themselves to objective measurement, define the performance outcomes expected of both students directly entering the workforce and of students pursuing higher education, and facilitate comparisons with students of other states and other nations.
Today, many of the architects of the reform stand by that reasoning.
The idea was that low scores on the test would signal to district and state leaders that schools needed extra help, whether through funding or extra attention from the administration.
MCAS and Latino Students
At first, many people in the Latino community saw that approach as promising — at least as tolerable.
“Because it couldn’t get any worse. The dropout rates were through the roof,” UMass Boston sociologist Miren Uriarte recalled.
The students she studies posted “dismal” test scores in the beginning, and the gap has lingered. In 2014, just 27 percent of English learners met state standards on the math MCAS — and just 24 percent on the English MCAS. By contrast, 60 and 69 percent of all state students met those standards that year.
That pattern has been visible for a long time. But rather than helping those students and their teachers with policies and resources to help them improve, Uriarte says the state ended up entangling them in a political web.
In 2002, Massachusetts voters passed an initiative that forced all that state’s students to learn in English only — an approach called “sheltered-English immersion.”
English learners have continued to lag behind their native-born peers on the MCAS test. That 2002 law is now widely regarded as a policy failure. The Legislature finally replaced the immersion requirement last year.
Then in 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a new education law with the stated aim to close the achievement gap. That law put the poorest-performing schools at risk of being taken over by the state.
There are some districts in the state which have made progress in closing the achievement gap for English learners.
Boston has expanded its international school to include a “newcomer’s academy,” known as BINcA. And in Revere, educators have managed impressive MCAS scores given the district’s rapidly changing demographics.
Revere even has a “newcomer’s academy” of their own, where immigrant students of all ages are brought together to play games, speak and learn in both languages. When we visited, a teacher and principal were modeling different clothes, so kids could learn the English names for them.
Uriarte says it’s an argument for getting beyond the idea of “objective measurement” and embracing teaching that is sensitive to students’ starting points, no matter how various. She credits the Margarita Muñiz Academy, Boston’s dual-language high school, for taking Latino students’ culture and identity into account — so that they feel “much more comfortable than they do in other types of schools.”
And the English-learner achievement gap is far from the only one at play in Massachusetts: The warping effects of income, race and disability still show up in test scores, as our interactive chart reveals.