"You should have seen their faces at the end of the testing," said regional high school history teacher Corinne Kurtz. "They were skeletons."
The test is known as MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a product of state educational reforms that put fourth, eighth and tenth graders in the exam mode for up to 20 hours every spring.
No doubt, the process is grueling. Getting ready for MCAS has spawned pre-test pep rallies at the high school, and higher test scores helped bring a salary bonus for at least one Island principal this year. Every November, the results are rolled out in charts that seem to invite a competition of "Who's the best school?"
But what does MCAS mean in the classroom, especially in the tenth grade classes where students must pass the test if they want to graduate from high school?
On that question, teachers are anything but unified in their answers. None, however - not even the MCAS supporters - deny that if their students have to take the high-stakes test in May, then they are definitely "teaching to the test" in the months leading up to it.
Ms. Kurtz and her department chairman, 27-year veteran teacher Marge Harris, are blunt about MCAS.
"It's not a reflection of what they've learned," said Mrs. Harris. "There are so many more creative ways to assess student learning."
More than that, they say, MCAS is driving the curriculum like a speeding race car, forcing teachers to zoom over whole periods of history at a pace that allows no time to delve into specific areas with any real depth.
"I've got nine weeks to get them through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation," said Ms. Kurtz. "That's a thousand years."
Admittedly, the state department of education is working to revamp the social studies portion of MCAS. So far, the test has not counted toward the graduation requirement - only math and English do - and tenth graders this year won't even have to plow through any questions about Alexander the Great or the Cold War.
The biggest gripe from the high school history department is that while the English and math sections of MCAS measure skills, their version is purely content-based. And teachers have no idea on what areas the test will focus.
By contrast, in preparation for the Advanced Placement exam, taken by top-level students in a bid for college credit, teachers are told ahead of time what the likely essay questions will be.
Mrs. Harris, who spent the last two years working for the state education department training teachers how to retool their teaching to meet the state curriculum frameworks, said teachers should write the state test, not textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
In New York, she pointed out, teachers help produce the state high school tests. As it stands now, she said, the curriculum frameworks are useful, but the MCAS is just a "flurry of tests."
"Some of our best students don't do well," she said. "They're not little factoids." MCAS, she added, stresses knowing the Founding Fathers and the Federalist Papers, but not in the context of how she prefers to teach, which is to ask students, "What does it all mean?"
It's possible that teachers in the other two MCAS disciplines have an easier time with the test because they aren't subject to such nitpicking. In English, high school teacher Todd Sawyer said that the test is about composition and reading skills, not about poetic imagery in some 19th-century novel.
A third-year teacher, Mr. Sawyer carries the whole load of tenth graders. To him, MCAS looms over the classroom not as some dark cloud but as a culminating event of the year. The test is a chance to show off what they've learned, he said
"So much of what we do goes on behind closed doors," he said. "This is their opportunity to show their skills. [Without MCAS] it would be like practicing all year and never playing a game."
Mr. Sawyer acknowledges that the high-stakes exam causes his students stress, but he works hard to prepare them. An MCAS scorer himself, he shares old tests with his class and fashions some of his own classroom assessments after the state standardized test.
"We do practice tests," he said. "I want to build their confidence so they go into the test knowing they're going to do well."
Despite his support for MCAS, Mr. Sawyer is not so sure one test should determine whether a student graduates. "That's open to debate," he said.
Tenth graders who fail any portion of MCAS can retake the test as many as five times. But government and theatre teacher Duncan Ross is adamant that no single test should keep a student from graduating.
"It could be a good diagnostic tool," he said, "but not the sole criterion." Mr. Duncan, a union leader, heads up the public relations committee for the Massachusetts Teachers Association and helped mount last year's television ad campaign that attacked MCAS.
Overseeing all these divergent opinions and passions about MCAS in one building is high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan.
To her, MCAS is a balancing act for teachers, who are faced with the challenge of inspiring their students with a rich curriculum while also preparing them for the big test.
"It's not one or the other but both together," she said.
Still, Mrs. Regan admits that prepping students for MCAS has a lot to do with simple test-taking skills, boosting confidence and endurance. Last year, she held rallies to get tenth graders pumped up for the marathon.
Test results are also used to help fine-tune the curriculum, she said. If a lot of kids couldn't figure out how to read a bar graph, for example, then the teacher can address that weakness in the next round.
Still, there's always more to cover than teachers ever feel they have time to do. Earlier this week, high school math teacher Diane Sylvia let her tenth graders know at the outset of their 75-minute period that they had to pick up the pace.
"Are we done with this?" she asked them as they worked through a warm-up of algebra and geometry questions beamed onto the wall from the overhead projector. "Spend a couple more minutes, because we need to do a lot today."
Later, Ms. Sylvia encouraged her students to find the midpoint in triangles, to measure the line segments and the angles and look for relationships.
It was a free-form moment, with some of the 18 students heading to one of a dozen computers to draw their triangles on the screen. Ms. Sylvia had her hands full moving around the classroom, fielding questions.
This process lasted about 15 minutes. And the students were talking math - not geometry exactly, but about the bulk of the 265-pound football player from West Roxbury and the $8 an hour plus tips you can make selling Christmas trees.
By the end of the period, though, Ms. Sylvia was pleased. The kids were getting it, she said, seeing that the angles were congruent and the lines parallel.
A math teacher for the last 16 years (three of them at the high school), she has been around long enough to see both sides of the pendulum. Ten years ago, she had eighth-graders who couldn't subtract.
"With MCAS, I have seen the skill level go up," she said. "But let's face it, a test is going to drive the curriculum."
Her goal as a teacher is to find the right balance. With geometry, she said, it's a little easier to make math more interesting. Kids are designing a parking lot for a shopping mall, and the walls are decorated with designs students have created.
"Yes, we need experiential learning," she said, "but we need it balanced with skills." To her way of thinking, the skills she's teaching are pretty close to what MCAS is testing.
And when Mr. Sawyer saw his students "pour their hearts" into the test, he was convinced it was a good thing.
But if one test is tantamount to the Super Bowl, what about the losers? Yes, they'll get another few cracks, but Mrs. Harris said there's a real danger there: "Kids are given the validation that they're failures."