After the MCAS Dust Settles

As Island schools deal with the fallout from the annual Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, their administrators will be tested. Voters will find their own commitments tested, as town and state coffers are scraped to find ways to pay for ever-higher scores demanded by the federal government’s punitive and never fully funded law, No Child Left Behind.

The test results and their ramifications are confusing. On the basis of the test, two Island schools — the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and the Oak Bluffs School — failed to meet what is called their federal Adequate Yearly Progress for 2008, based on performance in special education and Hispanic subgroups, respectively.

The Oak Bluffs School, which did not meet requirements for the second consecutive year, is now officially identified for improvement. So now are half of the schools in the commonwealth.

This invokes sanctions for the Oak Bluffs School, which, despite one in four students with special education needs, is a successful one, with many students scoring well above the state’s average. What’s more, Massachusetts is a tough grader, with state standards among the toughest in the nation.

The federal law aims to ensure all students meet minimum standards by 2014, so the bar is higher each year. More schools will “fail,” because there are so many ways to do so. Moreover, the federal emphasis on penalizing so-called failures, though designed to close the real achievement gap that exists for minority and low-income students, nevertheless can be misleading.

The federal law seeks to make schools accountable, a laudable goal although Washington never followed through with money. It also offers no incentives for raising standards among top students, only punishments for not raising standards for those at the bottom fast enough or high enough — a fact that prompted former high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan to lament that teaching becomes just about the minimum standard. And for all students, standardized tests cannot be the only measure of their school enrichment.

The federal No Child Left Behind law is facing its own test; the law is pending reauthorization and will be left on the desk for the next President and Congress. Accordingly, this is the time to examine the education policies of the candidates, as their choices will have an impact on your children and your budget.