A Critical Analysis of the MEAP

Comments made at the Flint Area Public Affairs Debates:

Are MEAP Assessments Helping to Improve Student Learning and School Accountability? 

By Michael Peterson

February 15, 2001

[Editors Note:The article below prepared for a debate in which the Rouge Forum/Whole Schooling Consortium argued against standardization and high-stakes testing.The Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence and the Department of Treasury were there arguing on behalf of standardization and high-stakes testing.] 

What is the purpose of schooling? 

Two fundamentally different answers are being proposed. 

In one, the purpose of schooling is to provide children with narrow technical skills and a mindset to do what they are told by people in authority, whether government or a boss, without question, to blame themselves always for the problems in their lives rather than blaming social injustice. 

For this approach to schooling, the MEAP does an excellent job. It marvelously sorts kids into two categories – one to keep and the other to throw away.It is not a surprise, then that the people here tonight speaking on behalf of the MEAP represent the Department of Treasury and an extension of the Chamber of Commerce. 

In the second fundamental approach, the purpose of schooling is to help children develop as full human beings, to develop skills to be truly democratic citizens who can critically analyze our social situation and help create change to create a more equitable society. Such schools will help children develop technical skills but the key skill they will have is to think deeply, to ask hard questions. This is the approach represented by the Whole Schooling Consortium and the Rouge Forum, that Greg Queen and I represent in the meeting tonight. 

For this approach to schooling, the MEAP is a travesty, moving to destroy quality teaching, to create cultures of fear, to abuse children in the name of education.

Having said this, let’s be more specific:

1. The MEAP largely measures the income and wealth of children. The correlation is very high such that in typical statistics you could very accurately predict an individual child’s MEAP score and certainly the overall average of a school by the income of the parents. Recent reports in the Detroit Free Press and studies comparing Detroit schools with MEAP scores from other schools show this. 

For high income schools the MEAP is largely a nuisance. Their children could stay home for 3 years and do well and they know it. 

In fact, large numbers of high income Oakland County school districts boycotted the MEAP in recent years.These high income districts tend to have the most students who pass the MEAP tests.It is clear that the reward monies for kids who pass the tests was a political move by the Governor to quell the resistance of such high income communities. As the Rouge Forum says, bribery is 19th Democratic value.

2. For schools that serve working class and low income children, there is enormous pressure to ‘raise the test scores’ that helps create a culture that destroys real learning. 

Such schools may spend up to 40% of their instructional time teaching test-taking strategies, focusing on specific skills they think are on the MEAP and counseling certain kids out of taking the test who will bring their scores down. An interesting side note, the federal special education law now says that all children with disabilities are to have the same opportunity to take state exams like the MEAP. However, the law did not specifically say that their scores have to be counted in the totals. So schools exempt these kids systematically. It’s not about raising learning for all kids, it’s about winning. 

We see efforts that build the entire schooling process around the MEAP

pep rallies to “beat the MEAP” 

exempting low performing kids from taking the test 

spending substantial amounts of teacher time ‘aligning’ their entire curriculum with the test 

narrowing down frivolous and fun activities to spend all their time focusing on ‘what will be on the test’

putting pressure on teachers to ‘not be slackers’

creating exams schoolwide that ‘look like the meap’ rather than involving kids in real demonstrations of learning. 

High income schools tend to have more teachers who involve kids in active learning, real thinking, project-based learning – strategies that we know promote substantial learning. 

Low income schools, even without the MEAP, tend to have more teaching that is driven by narrow worksheets, unengaged learning, etc. The MEAP makes this worse. 

I know two schools who have had similar experiences. Each developed a truly model program where real learning is promoted for children, some 60% of whom are on free and reduced lunch. This school is visited from high and low income schools all over the metro area as a model of what can be done in real learning for children. They are an inclusive school with one of the lowest special education rates in the entire state. However, their MEAP scores are lower than desired. The principal was threatened with her job, enormous pressure has been put on teachers to do away with these strategies and focus in on worksheets about what will ‘be on the test.’Multi-age teaching, an exemplary program at this school is also under scrutiny. 

3. The great horror, however, is what the MEAP does to children.

Robert, “You are too stupid to take the MEAP.” 

Holly’s son. needing therapy, Feels the stress from the MEAP because he is one of the high achievers in the school.

Increased drop out rates.

Kids know for sure this is not about learning. It is about adults and real estate values. 

4. You might say this is all worth it if it led to something. However, the very foundation of the MEAP is worthless as the foundation of creating real learning for children. 

All across the nation the ‘standards movement’ has sought to identify ‘what children should know.’While this makes sense at first, when you look again, it makes no sense at all. 

First, who was asked about what should be known, about the purpose of schooling, about what we want for children? Parents, community members, students themselves? 

Not a chance. 

The ones who set these supposed standards were (1) CEO’s of companies and (2) representatives of the various disciplines – reading, social studies, science. Not surprisingly, what we got out of the charade was a set of standards that (1) outlined narrow technical skills and ‘facts’ to be known and (2) impossible quantities of information. 

Go look at any MEAP test and try to take it yourself. What you will find is this: 

-Many questions to which you don’t know the answer.

-Answers that clearly reflect an interpretation of the world. A test that becomes a tool of indoctrination rather than an assessment of fact.

For example, on the social studies MEAP, students are presented information about a social situation in a local community and they are to write a response following very specific technical guidelines – they have to respond, draw information from facts given to them, and identify a core democratic value. The scoring guide illustrated online suggests that students often lose points because, instead of giving the precise technical format required, they instead“try to suggest solutions to social problems”. In other words, the social studies MEAP doesn’t want kids to talk about solutions, but just to respond to technical directions in a formulaic way. 

5. We can clearly see that the MEAP is simply designed to sort communities, put pressure on children, push away from teaching that helps children think and learn. What makes this most clear is that there is simply no discussion in any real way about the impact of this great and dangerous experiment. 

There have been no evaluation studies conducted and none proposed that would provide an independent look. 

What research and evaluation that has been done reinforces and validates all that I have said here tonight. 

The only validation of this test and the political strategies used to insure that the populace takes it is power and force. 

Teachers are threatened with punitive action if they want to tell parents that they have the right to exempt their children or want to even question the validity of the MEAP. What holds the MEAP in place is not research, not good practice, but sheer use of power by an alliance of people who run corporations and who hold positions of power in government. 

With the election of President George Bush, of course, this will continue and get worse if his plans for fostering more ‘standards’ and more tests on schools are successful. From the man who has already brought us statements like . . . 

“One reason I like to highlight reading is, reading is the beginnings of the ability to be a good student.

“I want it to be said that the Bush administration was a results-oriented administration, . . .teaching children to read and having an education system that’s responsive to the child and to the parents . . .will make America what we want it to be—a literate country and a hopefuller country.”

“They said, ‘You know, this issue doesn’t seem to resignate with the people.’ And I said, you know something? Whether it resignates or not doesn’t matter to me, because I stand for doing what’s the right thing, and what the right thing is hearing the voices of people who work.”

Like Michigan’s MEAP, the Texas TAAS is fostering harm on millions of children, increased drop-out rates, all unquestioned. The man who brought us the brilliance of these statements will soon be joining his colleagues in Michigan to create even more damage in our schools. 

However, if we live in a democracy, then power is in the hands of people who care and will speak and the time to speak and act is now. 

There are alternatives to the educational travesty based upon the ‘lots and lots and lots o facts curriculum’ and tests that sort kids by color and prepare them for the unemployment lines of corporate downsizing. 

We can intentionally create schools that seek to be places of joy, growth and discovery, where part of ‘assessment’ is to create the best conditions for learning we know possible and watch what happens. Rather than the arm of power and force standing over a child and saying the equivalent of ‘Prove to me you have learned and are worthy,” standing over teachers with a club or gun in hand saying, “Prove to me you have been teaching, ” we can instead have community celebrations where children show products of their learning through portfolios, where in individual courses kids get to develop complex projects working as groups, where we look for and discover the unexpected learning. 

Barb McKenzie is the parent of a remarkable child who carries a label of mental retardation. She has been included in a school that has bucked the tide and engaged kids in real learning. Here is what she says about her daughter’s learning, “Who would have thought that....”

The Whole Schooling Consortium was formed in 1997 to provide a child, family, and community centered alternative and voice to fight against the repressive, regressive educational agenda being foisted on schools by people in fiscal and governmental power. We found our work on five basic principles which organize a host of specific schooling practices, all aimed at having children of real difference learn well together – 

Empowerment in a democracy – really, not just fake. 

Including all in learning together. In truth illustrating that all children can learn, and learn together.

Authentic, multi-level teaching – kids challenged in real learning at their own level with support. 

Building a caring community for learning. 

Rather than segregate kids by abilitiy and language, Support teachers and students with specialists who help enrich the regular classroom. 

Partnering with parents and the community, linking school and community learning. 

A critical start will be to hold schools and teachers accountable for how well they implement these types of practices which have deep and wide research bases. 

A more fundamental start will be to hold business and government accountable for providing resources and support to make these practices possible – to provide equitable funding for schools, to insure that children have enough to eat and a decent place in which to live, to insure that teachers are respected and have support in constant learning and growth.

Fortunately, there is a growing resistance movement to the child abuse fostered by the MEAP and other similar tests throughout the United States.It is led by courageous teachers and parents against the power phalanx of business and government. In Michigan, many have protested individually and some have done so collectively. The Rouge Forum is one network of parents, teachers, and community members promoting good teaching, democracy and the demise of the MEAP. 

On May 5 at 11:00 AM in Detroit, a rally against the MEAP will be held. This will be a place to make a public statement against Michigan’s plan to destroy real learning for its children and it will be a place to speak out for true democracy in schools. Come join us.


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