In looking beyond MCAS, district seeks a sharper view

Email|Print| Text size + By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2008

BROOKLINE - Like many communities, Brookline has long complained that standard MCAS tests don't measure everything a child should know and be able to do in the 21st century. Now the town's school system is offering a concrete way to do that.

In what may be the most innovative attempt to measure student progress in the state, Brookline officials recently unveiled a two-year effort to supplement the pencil-and-paper testing provided by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System with in-classroom activities that cover a broader range of topics and skills.

"This is not a way to dismiss MCAS, but an assessment of things MCAS doesn't and can't assess," said Jennifer Fischer-Mueller, the district's deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. "We are looking for a broader, richer picture of student learning."

Other communities have experimented with additional assessments to measure subjects not covered by MCAS, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. But nobody has created anything as comprehensive as Brookline's common grade assessments, he said.

"This is a state-of-the-art kind of system, and I'm not aware of anything like it," he said. "It's a hugely innovative concept. I expect it will draw a lot of national interest."

So far, pilot measures in physical education, world languages, performing arts, early literacy, and science have been tried out and adopted in some grades in Brookline, Fischer-Mueller said. The schools plan to continue rolling out assessments in remaining subjects, and to make refinements.

"It's time-consuming, but it's an investment for the long term that has an immediate impact," she said.

Fischer-Mueller noted that the new assessments are "not always tests." They are, for the most part, common activities developed across schools and grades. Teachers in the same subject and grade analyze the assessments to learn how to improve the curriculum and instruction techniques as well as the customized measuring tools, Fischer-Mueller said.

For instance, in gym class a teacher may record the number of situps each child in a particular grade can perform. The number would be compared with what a fit child of that age and gender might be expected to perform. A snapshot of the student's physical condition, based on a number of indicators such as flexibility, aerobic fitness, and body-mass index, is sent to parents annually.

The report also offers suggestions for maintaining or improving fitness, and allows the school district to collect fitness data that can be correlated with MCAS results acoss the system.

Junior high school science teachers have developed an assessment to measure skills in inquiry and data analysis, which are not measured by MCAS. Seventh-graders are presented with an activity involving a bouncing ball, while eighth-graders use a pendulum for their assessment, and how the students collect and analyze the results is graded according to guidelines that are shared by all of their teachers.

The resulting discussion among the teachers, according to Mark Goldner, a Heath School science teacher, explored the students' poor results in making sense of their data and how the teachers could deepen understanding of these skills.

In the past, Brookline officials have taken a strong stand against what they see as the narrowing focus by schools statewide to meet MCAS-tested standards, and the high-stakes requirement that students pass the MCAS to graduate from high school.

When Brookline began developing its own assessments several years ago, Fischer-Mueller said, the schools were revising their so-called common learning expectations - teacher-created standards set in the order in which they should be learned. But they had no common way to show that students were learning these things.

The new assessment system was constructed when teams of teachers, grouped by subject and grade, explored how to capture evidence of such learning.

Fischer-Mueller said Brookline officials read a lot of research on assessments and their role in closing the achievement gap, and look at what other schools are doing. "But we don't just transfer, we translate for what will work well in Brookline to get the results we want," she said.

The public got its first extended look at the system during the School Committee's Jan. 3 meeting, where members praised the assessment presentations.

"This is such a culture change," chairwoman Judy Meyers said. "When I came to the School Committee eight years ago, there were pockets of excellence in individual schools, but no learning together and sharing what we knew. The whole approach has changed."

School Committee member Rebecca Stone agreed.

"This pulls together many School Committee directives," she said. Among the board's requests were treatment of the Brookline schools as a system, collaboration across the town's eight K-8 schools, meaningful professional development for teachers, and using a variety of methods to make accurate assessments of how students are doing.

"We are mining MCAS data as well," Stone said. "But we put analysis and critical thinking in our learning expectations, and we must have a way to assess that. Paper-and-pencil tests just do not give us all we need."

Because of state and national requirements, the paper-and-pencil tests aren't going away. But Brookline officials have long maintained that their existing curriculum is more than adequate, and students don't receive any special MCAS preparation. The new system won't demand significantly more time from students or teachers, officials said, but will provide a common way of measuring the performance of the district's teachers, students, and schools.

Board member and MCAS supporter Alan Morse questioned whether the science-inquiry assessment might interfere with students' ability to perform well on the MCAS science tests.

"No," said Sue Zobel, a Lincoln School science teacher. "A lot of us are coming out of mourning over MCAS and losing the inquiry strand because the test is a mile wide and an inch deep. We've been wanting to restore inquiry to science."

Superintendent Bill Lupini concurred.

"This doesn't just inform instruction, it's fun and motivational," he said of the new assessments. "In a lot of cases, it's using time a different way, rather than taking more time. These aren't assessments where you stop learning for a big test. You could argue that it is instruction: It's real-world learning."

Brookline's efforts also won praise from the state Department of Education, said spokeswoman Heidi Perlman. "It goes along with the idea of MCAS - to have a common assessment across the state. Brookline has found a way to assess across the community, which is wonderful."

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