New Study Finds Rewarding Schools for MCAS Score Gains Produces Flawed Results, Encourages Inappropriate Practices

for release after 12:01 a.m., June 27, 2002

for further information contact:
Anne Wheelock: 617-524-7324
Monty Neill: (857) 350-8207


In a study released today, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) and the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE) conclude that use of annual score changes on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests to reward schools produces flawed decisions and endangers school quality. These flaws affect many of the recently named Department of Education “Compass Schools” for 2002.

“We found that in many schools, annual score gains that led to awards were pretty much accidental and were not repeated,” explained researcher Anne Wheelock. The study, reported in the current MCAS Alert, examined the Edgerly “School Leadership Awards,” the MassInsight Corporation’s “Vanguard Schools,” as well as “Compass Schools.” For example, gains in schools winning the Edgerly Awards in 1999 and 2000 did not continue into 2000 and 2001.

Wheelock added, “Even worse, the awards encourage schools to engage in Enron-like behavior: to game the system and to hide flaws. For example, many schools that won awards increased their grade retention and dropout rates, which made it easier for them to raise school scores enough to win an award. This is true of four of the six 2002 ‘Compass’ high schools named by the Department of Education. The state has no program to reduce dropout rates and no procedures to make sure school scores do not benefit from inappropriate practices or even from pushing kids out.”

“Nationally,” explained FairTest executive director Monty Neill, “high-stakes tests have caused an increase in dropouts and flunking kids. Schools and districts are often rewarded for keeping fewer students in school. In Massachusetts and across the nation, we are also seeing increased teaching to the test, which inflates test scores while lowering educational quality.”

The report concludes that high-stakes testing is not the only or best way to ensure accountability or determine which schools are best serving their students. CARE has proposed a system that would rely mainly on local and classroom assessments, but also include limited standardized tests and periodic reviews by external teams.

“This sort of an approach has been adopted by some states, including Maine, Nebraska and Rhode Island,” said Neill. “The Massachusetts Teachers Association also supports this plan.”

A summary of the report is can be found by clicking here. The published MCAS Alert is on the web here, and the full study, including references, is here. All are also available in paper copy on request.