As much as I care about making sure my students pass the MCAS so that they can earn a diploma, getting students to pass the test is not the end goal. My goal is to give every student in my class the skills to succeed in the higher-level courses at my school.
In 11th and 12th grade, students choose from a variety of thematically-based college style seminars, focusing for example on magical realism, dystopian literature, or the Harlem Renaissance...In addition to the frequent seminar discussions, students read college-level literary criticism, participate in group projects and write five- to seven-page analytical essays. My goal is that after high school, no matter what college my students attend, they will experience a seamless transition from 12th grade to their freshman year. If anything, college should feel easier than they expected.
Does the MCAS affect some logistical choices I make for my 10th graders? Of course. The MCAS is a handwritten test, so I require many handwritten essays so I can make sure my students are writing clearly and formatting their paragraphs correctly without the aid of a computer or spell-check. Does this impede my ability to assign rigorous analytical essays? Absolutely not.
There are also some discrete areas where my students do need explicit test preparation. After my first year teaching at the school, I realized that in addition to regular high-quality instruction, I also needed to help my students understand what the test was asking them to do. From January to March, I include in my lessons a number of explicit instructions about how to approach multiple-choice questions and how many words and paragraphs are expected for the composition portions of the test. We also review the plotline and characters of books we have read in class because the long composition always requires them to know at least one book very well. But this work is ultimately a very small portion of our classroom time, and even this sort of learning can be put to use long after this particular test has finished.
So to answer the common question: Is taking a high-stakes standardized test useful for most students? Yes. Part of college and career readiness is getting ready for exams. The MCAS, for example, is both a skill and an endurance test, and it prepares students to take tests of basic content knowledge--the kind of tests most professionals have to slog through to get to where they are. My students will have to take many such tests to gain access to professional fields like medicine, law, teaching and accounting.
Of course, all students deserve to go to schools where their daily work is much more than just test preparation. But the mere presence of tests in our schools isn't the problem. Yes, class can be a factor: I used to teach at a suburban charter school with mostly white, upper-middle class students who could all consistently pass the MCAS even if they had never heard of it until the day before because they were strong readers, writers and thinkers. But to suggest that in order to get low-income students to pass the test too, we need to either abandon rigorous learning opportunities or cheat is simply wrong. Instead, I try to model my class on the idea that if you can use your brain well, you will do well on any test. And my students do.