The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "The Politics of Curriculum Reform" by Secondary Education Today, Spring, 1994. A shorter version was also published by the Detroit News as "The Abuse and Misuse of MEAP," 4/29/94

Original Title:
The Politics of Curriculum Reform: How to Make a Silk Purse Into A Sow's Ear
by Barry McGhan

As a mathematics educator in a Michigan school district, I spend much time talking to teachers, administrators, students, and parents about the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) mathematics tests. If the "M" in MEAP stood for "misused" or "misunderstood," the test would be more appropriately named. To get a picture of why this is true, it is necessary to look at the history of the current MEAP tests.

In the late seventies and early eighties, schools in general, and the mathematics curriculum in particular, came under strong criticism from business. The complaint was that schools were graduating students who needed extensive employer retraining to be effective workers. In addition, calculators and computers were transforming the workplace. This resulted in a decreasing need to do paper and pencil calculations, and an increasing need to understand the calculations done by machines.

In response to these conditions, the state department of education invited the mathematics education community in the state--the Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics--to modernize the curriculum. A steering committee of K-12 and college educators was formed, with considerable additional support from teachers around the state. The result was the new Michigan Essential Goals and Objectives for Mathematics Education.

The whole point of developing new goals in the late 1980's was to foster the creation of a better curriculum than the increasingly unsatisfactory traditional one. The best way to think about the set of Essential Goals and Objectives is as a vision of where the math curriculum should be headed. The vision calls for students to develop problem-solving skills that will be useful in the technological world in which they will live and work. This is in contrast to the current curriculum, which focuses on memorization of rules, unreflective drill, and few applications to the real world. It is important to understand that no curriculum based on these new goals then existed in any school district, textbook or any other concrete form.

The MCTM knew that instruction probably would not change without some way to measure how close the schools were coming to achieving the new objectives. So, a new MEAP test was created for this purpose. The test was intended to be a measure of schools' curriculum and instruction, not individual students' achievement.

The test was first used in the fall of 1991. Across the state, test scores plummeted. One reason is that the test is harder. The business community wanted schools to do a better job of teaching students to think and to solve problems. Thinking is harder to teach, and to learn, than regurgitation of memorized facts and routines. It is a capability that develops over time, as the result of consistent experiences.

Another reason the scores fell is that the test is assessing a curriculum that teachers are not trained to teach. The average teacher is in her mid-forties and has twenty-plus years of teaching experience behind her. All of her training and almost all of her experience, as a math student and as a teacher, took place before the vision of a new curriculum was created. In other words, teachers are victims of the traditional curriculum we are asking them to change. So far, standard staff development approaches have not had much impact on the situation.

A third factor is that it's only in the last three or four years that materials aligned with the new curriculum have become available. Districts on a five or seven year text adoption cycle may not have had the opportunity to purchase new materials. And finally, some teachers and administrators may look upon the MEAP testing program as another nuisance thrust in their way by the education bureaucracy. So, there's not enough "ownership" of the MEAP, or of the underlying goals and objectives it is intended to assess.

What has happened to aggravate the situation is that high school students now have to pass the MEAP tests (in math, reading, and science) to get a state endorsed diploma. This year's seniors--the class of 1994--are the first ones to have to meet these requirements, even though there is (as yet) no clear value to having this endorsement.

Some people will probably wonder "What's wrong with that? Isn't it a good test?" The answer is that it is a good test--for a curriculum that most students haven't been taught! The 10th grade test, offered in early October, really tests what students should have learned in grades preceding the 10th grade, especially grades 7 through 9. Most current 12th graders were in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in 1988 through 1991. This was before the new goals and objectives were widely distributed, before the first new MEAP was given, and before teachers even got a look at them! Did those students have an opportunity to learn what the new MEAP expects of them? Not very likely. Even current 7th, 8th and 9th grade students don't have much of a chance to meet the objectives tested by the new MEAP. That's because, as mentioned above, most of their teachers have not yet been trained to handle the new curriculum demands. Retraining can work, but it takes time and money, and both are scarce in today's schools.

To make matters worse, the whole environment for positive, long-lasting change is corrupted by the attention given in the media to district test scores. The numbers are treated as if they are meaningful measures of individual student achievement. But they may only be measuring the degree to which wealthier districts can provide inservice to their teachers, hire teachers trained in the new curriculum, and buy more up-to-date materials for their classrooms. The numbers may also reflect the relative proportions of advantaged and disadvantaged students in districts, or a combination of these economic factors.

The pressure on educators to help students "pass" the MEAP (because of the endorsement and media attention) will force less fortunate districts to use short-term "teach to the test" strategies--or worse--engage in unethical practices to raise test scores. Such measures will result in artificially inflated scores. In other words, the scores go up, but the knowledge they are supposed to be measuring does not. This will destroy the usefulness of the MEAP as a tool to assess curriculum and instruction. In effect, schools may produce a facade of improved test scores to make themselves look better, while doing little to prepare students to live and work in the 21st century.

It would be hard to design a situation to make so many people unhappy as we have with the MEAP mathematics test. Students and parents will be unhappy because the endorsement will be (unfairly) difficult to get. Teachers and administrators will be unhappy because they are expected to produce results now that can only be legitimately achieved over a period of years. Politicians and their constituents will be unhappy because the MEAP mathematics test only expresses a vision of where the curriculum should go, not a roadmap of how to get there. It simply will not work as the measure of individual achievement they want it to be.

Many individuals have responsibility for creating this muddle. My mathematics education colleagues and I could have spoken out sooner and louder. Teachers and administrators could have taken an earlier interest in making this reform effort succeed. School boards could resist being stampeded into applying inappropriate pressures. The State Department of Education could have tried harder to educate the legislature about the delicate nature of the reform effort underway. The legislature could have resisted the pressures from the media and business community to misuse the scores. The media and business community could have tried to become better informed and less self-interested. With this degree of chaos in our educational affairs, is it any wonder that our students seem increasingly at risk of not meeting the challenges of the 21st century?


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