MORE STATES are requiring high school students to pass a standardized test before they can collect a diploma, and the protests are growing louder. The objections in Massachusetts are especially noisy. In part that is because Bay Staters are a querulous bunch; in part it's because the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System -- the MCAS -- is regarded as one of the nation's tougher high school tests.
The complaints about the MCAS are many, but the key ones seem to be that (1) it requires students to master an arbitrary collection of facts, while (2) giving short shrift to all the other kinds of knowledge they have acquired.
"The MCAS test," growls SCAM, the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS, "includes an enormous amount of information, much of which is irrelevant or so specialized that many adults do not know it." It also "devalues technical, linguistic, musical, athletic, and vocational skills ... that cannot be assessed on a standardized test."
The state's largest teachers union is spending $600,000 on an anti-MCAS ad campaign. "Learning," mourns the narrator in a TV spot, "used to be about a lot of things -- imagination, creativity, discovery, and dreams. But now the state says it's about one thing -- a flawed and unfair test, the one-size-fits-all, high-stakes, do-or-die MCAS."
Last spring, Dara Byer of Cambridge was one of hundreds of students who boycotted the test. "That a child's future should be determined by knowing or not knowing certain dates or formulas," she argued in an essay excerpted in the Globe, "is ridiculous and unfair."
Maybe so. But if the argument is that teen-agers cannot meet rigorous standards of knowledge or memorize all kinds of "irrelevant" details, it is easily refuted. Just ask the nearest teen-ager.
Talk to the boy who thought he couldn't hang with the popular guys in his high school without first committing to memory the thousand-and-one sports details they expect each other to be conversant with -- the names of the home team's starting lineup, their stats and history, the score in last night's game, the details of that awesome play in the third quarter, and the latest rumor about the coach's imminent firing. When our young man takes the MCAS, he'll face only questions whose answers are fixed -- why Henri IV issued the Edict of Nantes, say, or the value of x in a given quadratic equation. Meeting his classmates' expectations when it comes to sports knowledge, by contrast, means staying abreast of information that changes daily. A "ridiculous and unfair" challenge? Perhaps. But millions of boys meet it.
"Kids set truly high performance learning standards for each other," says Will Fitzhugh, who publishes The Concord Review -- a quarterly journal of essays on history by secondary school students -- and has done more to promote top-shelf research and writing at the high school level than any five teachers I know. "If students don't know the details of the latest clothing fashions or the hot computer games or the to-die-for movie stars, they're liable to be mocked, shunned, and generally 'flunked' by others their age. That's why so many spend hours each day absorbing the facts and names of popular culture."
You think the MCAS and tests like it are too difficult? You find it crazy that so much should ride on a teen's ability to spit back dates and figures he'll never use again? You object that preparing for these exams eats up too many hours that could be spent more meaningfully? What then do you make of the "MCAS" to which teen-agers routinely subject their peers? For example, consider some questions from the "Current Music" category -- mandatory for 10th-graders who wish to graduate to the "in" crowd:
1. Fred Durst is the lead singer of:
(a) Papa Roach
(c) Limp Bizkit
2. Eminem's mentor was:
( a) Ice Cube
(b) Dr. Dre
(c) Method Man
3. Essay topic: Who is Carson Daly, what is his relationship to "TRL," and why are they important to the music video industry?
4. Essay topic: Your younger sister and her friends are enamored of 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and 98 Degrees. Your friends find them unbearable. Explain the contrast.
Perhaps even SCAM would agree that the knowledge needed to answer such questions is "irrelevant or so specialized that many adults do not know it." Yet countless teens consider that knowledge essential -- and make it their business to learn it, along with vast amounts of material in other "essential" categories.
Standardized exams surely have their faults. But pressuring kids to master reams of facts isn't one of them. We already know they can do it. The question on the table is whether the subjects to be memorized will include English, math, science, and history -- or whether the only mandatory subjects will be music, television, movies, and
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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