School Committee QW: Where Do You Stand on High Stakes Testing?

Photo: The candidates: Bicer, O’Mahoney, Prestwich.
The Question of the Week (QW) for the School Committee candidates:
There is a bill in the legislature (H 340) sponsored by the state’s teachers union to halt statewide student testing, calling for a three-year moratorium on the implementation of PARCC – which Belmont has been a test community – and to remove the “high stakes” nature of the existing MCAS tests, ie. in which high school senior would no longer need to pass MCAS to graduate. Teachers say tests take too much time away from educating and don’t reveal just how much a student has learned. Opponents say removing MCAS and other tests could lead to a return of lack of standards and accountability. As members of the school committee, you may well be asked your opinion on this measure. Question: Where do you stand on high stakes testing?

Andrea Prestwich

The MCAS has been to used fulfill the requirements of the Federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). NCLB was enacted with the best of intentions: to use rigorous standardized tests to ensure that all children receive a good education. Tests were used to track individual students progress, evaluate teachers and identify “failing” schools. The stakes were high: schools that did not make sufficient progress were closed, teachers fired, and students prevented from graduating.

Unfortunately, NCLB was a failure. Kids from wealthy families did better on the test than poor kids. Teachers were penalized for working with disadvantaged kids! To improve scores, teachers would focus on test preparation to the extent that other areas of the curriculum suffered. There were reports that struggling high school students were pressured into dropping out to make the average scores better. The tests are extremely stressful for students.

One of the few issues our hideously divided congress could agree on is that NCLB is a failure. Last year congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The ESSA maintains the requirement for states to test, but gives states more freedom to define “school quality” and “accountability”. Given the new responsibilities under ESSA, I support the H340 requirement that the Commonwealth establish a task force to review the use of MCAS or PARCC data. Previous policies have failed, and it is time to re-evaulate what use we make of standardized tests. I also support the moratorium. Test results should not be used for teacher evaluation or student graduation while the task force does its job. To clarify: I fully support standardized testing. Standardized testing is crucial to identify problem areas and measure progress. However, we need to take a break and think about how test data is used in view of the failures of the past decade.

Murat Bicer

I am not generally in favor of standardized testing. Research shows that test results correlate above all to socio-economic conditions and may be unable to parse the quality of education at the individual or classroom level.  Many tests are criticized for being biased and the system of test taking disadvantages students who have difficulties with structured, timed activities. I believe that multiple-choice tests are not a good indicator of how much a student has learned, or whether that student has the qualities that good students should have – like creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity. Any student who is struggling with basic skills should be identified and supported well before a test result points out his deficiencies. It is true, however, that Belmont has in the past used test results to identify areas of relatively weaker performance and make positive changes in those areas.  

The Massachusetts Education Reform Laws of 1993 necessitate “a variety of assessment instruments” whose purpose is to evaluate student performance and to “improve the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction.” Tests have been credited with ensuring a certain quality standard across the state, but they’re imperfect. Unfortunately for all, many of the other “assessment instruments” such as descriptive reporting and subjective, essay-based testing are more difficult to administer and often put additional burden on the teachers, and that’s likely why testing has become the primary “instrument.”  

We can probably all agree that accountability and adherence to a basic standard curriculum is necessary, but that needs to happen on a day to day basis within the school community, not as a result of, or in pursuit of, a test score.

Kimberly O’Mahoney

Personally, I have never been a big fan of standardized tests,  but my only experience has been in the seat of a test-taker.  I never felt that the tests provided the “bigger picture” of my educational experience and abilities. The testing also is narrowed to only include certain subjects, leaving behind the notion that a well-rounded educational experience (including extra-curricular areas) is most beneficial to the children. That being said, there are also benefits to the testing that is being administered. It does help support accountability and possibly identify those areas in the curriculum that may need review and reinforcement. Belmont, though, has always prided itself on the high quality of education that it affords the children in the District. With or without standardized tests, Belmont will keep this a priority. I don’t believe that the high standards that our educators are held to will diminish if this moratorium is put in place. It may allow for greater flexibility in instruction and allow classes to delve further into subject areas without the constraints of focusing on and preparing for the “test material.”

School Committee Candidates QW: The One Issue The Board Should Focus On

Photos: (from left) Murat Bicer, Kimberly O’Mahony, Andrea Prestwich.

Welcome to the first QW (Question of the Week) for the three candidates seeking to fill to two open three-year seats on the Belmont School Committee at town election on April 5. The order in which the candidates answered this week is by alphabetical order. 

Name the one issue you believe the board should focus on in your tenure on the school board?

Murat Bicer

I believe the most important issue facing the school board over the next three years is increasing enrollment. Families with school-age children are moving to town as housing comes to market, and new multi-unit developments are likely to bring additional students. A growing number of students require mandated English language learning and special education. These two factors put pressure both on our school budget and on our facilities.  

In the fall of 2012, the town convened a task force to study the issue of increasing enrollment and recommend strategic solutions. While a number of viable solutions were proposed, there was little budget to affect the changes. Since that time, two very important developments have occurred.  First, Belmont residents passed a $4.5 million Proposition 2.5 override. Second, the Massachusetts School Building Authority voted to move Belmont High School forward in its process, which will provide state cost sharing in the construction of a much needed new campus that can reflect our current and future needs.  

As a school committee member, I will use my deep experience in financial management and operational planning to ensure that the best decisions are made for immediate impact as well as future stability for our excellent schools. I will look to recommendations already made by the task force and welcome new ideas, while measuring each against the fiscal cost to our community. It is imperative that every dollar we spend on our schools has a direct, positive impact on the education of our children. Our focus needs to be on building a high school facility that can last us another 50 years, and enough flexibility in our lower schools to respond to enrollment fluctuations.

The most pressing issue facing the Belmont Public Schools over the next three years is the management of increasing enrollment. There is a lack of space throughout the district and the population of the town is ever-growing. The quality of our education system is the reason that people come to Belmont and is why they will continue to come; it’s why my husband and I moved here 12 years ago! We knew the reputation of the schools in Belmont and wanted our family to be educated in the best public schools in the area. 

In order for our town to uphold this reputation, we have an obligation to ensure every child is supported, especially at the elementary level where many children are learning to speak English. Belmont has a very diverse community, which makes living here so rich and rewarding.  With that diversity, though, comes more responsibility – especially in supporting and scaffolding children’s abilities.

As a first step, the School Committee voted unanimously to decline participation in School Choice at last Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting. Participating in School Choice would only add to the enrollment pressures that we already feel with the population that resides in Belmont. The School Committee will be critical in identifying solutions that will bring about positive change to alleviate the pressure of this issue.

Andrea Prestwich

The most critical issues facing Belmont schools are spiraling enrollment and the need for a new high school. Both of these issues require careful strategic planning by the School Committee and a willingness to advocate for an override to fund the new high school. These issues must be addressed otherwise our schools will fall apart (almost literally in the case of the high school!

We also need to transition BHS and Chenery to healthier (i.e. later) start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control both recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow adolescents to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation among adolescents is a serious public health issue. Although there is an overwhelming medical consensus in favor of later start times,  this issue seldom gets to the top of a School Districts’s  priority list – there are always competing issues! If elected to the School Committee, I will devote time and energy to working for healthier school hours. I will not let later start times be squeezed off the agenda by managing the enrollment and a new high school. Enrollment and a new high school are critical, but so is sleep. We must work on all three.