Standardized testing means make-or-break at Commerce

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SPRINGFIELD–High schools all across the country use standardized testing as a measuring stick for school performance.  For the students at Springfield’s Commerce High School, some say this year of testing is especially nerve-wracking.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education classifies Commerce as a level 4 school due to chronic underperformance on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) standardized tests.

But seniors at the under-performing high school say agree that standardized testing is no way to determine an individual’s intelligence.

Todd Baron, 17, is a senior at Commerce. This Springfield school is his fifth high school in four years.

“Standardized testing measures what teachers teach. It isn’t testing what you know. The system measures the teachers instead of us,” Baron said. He says he has dreams to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from Western New England University where his grandmother works on campus.

“The situation was worse where I used to be living and I came up here to get out of it,” he said.

Baron attended schools in Mississippi and Florida before his father went to prison and he came to Springfield to live with his grandparents. He says his three younger brothers live in Mississippi and New York, but he has not seen them in three years due to lack of travel access.

John Bartel is a U.S. History teacher at Commerce.  While only in his second year of teaching at the high school, he worries about his future there as chronic under-performance threatens state intervention.

“At level five the state comes in and looks at all the teachers and has to cut the teachers by half. That worries me,” Bartel said.

Kimberly Cruz, 17, is a senior at Commerce who says she has a passion for storytelling. As graduation approaches, she already has self-published four novels, upwards of 60 chapters each, on a website called Wattpad. Her first book garnered 2.5 thousand readers while her second novel drew 1.5 thousand.

“If you want to reach graduation you need good grades and good attendance. Colleges want to see you performing well in 9th grade and 10th grade,” she said. The senior is looking at several colleges in New York City where she is interested in studying journalism.

“Senior year is almost over for us now. When you’re in 9th grade you think you have all the time in the world, but by the time you’re a senior there’s no time left,” Cruz said.

She expressed disappointment with her MCAS scores from last year, which she has carefully removed from their envelope and laid out on her desk.

“In math I did terrible. Science and English I passed, but I didn’t pass the math one. I think it comes down to how the teacher teaches you,” said Cruz.

History teacher Bartel says he dislikes high pressure testing and is in favor of helping students cultivate useful skills for college and the workforce.

“I don’t believe in the midterms and I don’t believe in the finals… I’m a firm believer in teaching them skills. I want them to go out to the work force and go off to college with skills. Skills and accountability,” said Bartel.

“I f***ing hate testing,” Jermaine Powell, 17, senior at Commerce said, “When I’m under pressure I forget a lot of things. That’s all tests do, put people under pressure.”

He says he has a problem with the format of the MCAS, which relies heavily on reading comprehension.

“I can read, but I’m never focused reading. I read a line five, six times and I forget everything I’ve read. It would be more helpful to have the test read to me,” Powell said.

On Oct. 26 it is MCAS testing day. After-school attendence at the journalism club is low. Many students express they are burnt out from testing. Powell says he is tired, physically and with the American education system as a whole.

“They wonder why our school still fails. That old school s*** don’t work no more. You can’t keep doing the same s*** for 15 years, we aren’t learning the same way we did 15 years ago. Times are changing,” Powell said.  

Cruz expressed her outlook on Commerce High School.

“I don’t see it as bad here. People who come here new might find the teachers annoying. But if you work hard you’ll see that no matter how the school is, you aren’t going to care about how the school is. You’ll only be focused on what you’re doing rather than what other people are doing,” she said.

“We are at a real disadvantage. We have no reason to come to school. What’s the point? Some people don’t even come to school. They don’t give us anything then expect us to do better. I say no to charter schools because they are draining money from our schools,” Baron said.

Cruz attended a charter school for a short period before it closed down, sending her to complete her high school education at Springfield’s Commerce.

“We keep trying, but if the whole school has been failing that test over and over and over, why not change it? Obviously that test isn’t working,” Powell said.

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