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Education advocates in Massachusetts ask leaders to consider ending MCAS requirement for graduation

Student fills dots out on a standardized test.
Nguyen Dang Hoang
Student fills dots out on a standardized test.

Top Democrats are leaving the door open to reassessing the role of Massachusetts' long-controversial standardized testing system as some education advocates reinvigorate calls to abolish the tests or remove the requirement that high school seniors pass it in order to receive a diploma.

Lawmakers created the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) system in a 1993 education reform law that was aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and students have been required to achieve sufficient scores to graduate since the class of 2003.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teacher's union, and other educators have long opposed the test. The MTA set its sights against the test again in December when setting their policy goals for the 2023-2024 legislative session, describing the MCAS exams as "destructive and punitive."

Though she did not go as far as saying the state should get rid of the test, Senate President Karen Spilka said on WCVB's "On the Record" program on Sunday that she was open to alternatives to high-stakes MCAS testing for some students.

"I believe that we should have more alternatives to testing than just the MCAS for certain students," Spilka said.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts for the first time in at least eight years has a governor who may be more amenable to the idea of changes to the MCAS system.

Gov. Maura Healey was endorsed by the MTA in her campaign, and her education platform includes support for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, a partnership of eight public school districts exploring new accountability systems that aren't reliant on just the MCAS.

"Maura supports the efforts of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment and will work with stakeholders to determine what reforms to our assessment and accountability system would best support the goals of advancing excellence and equity, especially for students with disabilities, English learners, and those from marginalized communities," says Healey's campaign website.

Some educators say the standardized testing exams lead teachers to "teach to the test" instead of educating students on what they believe to be the best curriculum, as well as social emotional skills.

"We don't teach science, and we don't teach ELA and we don't teach math at the elementary level, what we teach is test taking skills," said MTA vice president and former fifth grade teacher Deb McCarthy in December.

A new national tally found that Massachusetts is one of only eight states that require high school seniors to pass a standardized test to receive a diploma, and that the number of jurisdictions requiring graduation tests or exit exams has dropped sharply from a high of 26 in the mid-1990s, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which conducted the analysis.

"Increasingly policymakers have recognized that standardized test hurdles for high school graduation do not improve overall educational outcomes. Instead, they harm thousands of young people who either drop out after failing an exit exam or are forced out of school without high school diplomas despite completing all their classroom work," FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder said.

In Louisiana, which had an exit exam in 2019, 80 percent of all students earned a diploma but only 41 percent of English learners graduated. When the state waived the testing requirement the next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduation rate for English learners increased from 41 percent to 48 percent, according to FairTest.

"Untested subjects are downplayed. Classes in tested subjects concentrate on the exams," Feder said. "Since tests are primarily multiple-choice, teachers are forced to focus on rote learning rather than encouraging students to think and apply their knowledge. They are not real measures of college or career readiness."

Still, many, including Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, say MCAS scores are an important tool to "predict later outcomes in education and earning," and the state Board of Education voted this summer to raise the minimum score that this year's incoming freshman class and at least the four classes that follow will have to attain on the English language arts, math, and science and technology/engineering test in order to graduate.

The system is one of several indicators the department uses to track school performance for accountability purposes.

Results from the most recent MCAS, taken in the spring of 2022, show "continued need for improvement" in tracking student academic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and related learning loss. Students at all levels showed decline in English language art scores in 2022 compared to 2021, while math and science scores improved overall.

According to FairTest, the eight states that still have graduation tests for the high school class of 2023 are Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming.

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