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'Thrive Act' proposes to end the state’s MCAS graduation requirement

Snowden student Chamel Mejia holds an anti-testing sign at the May protest. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Snowden student Chamel Mejia holds an anti-testing sign at the May protest. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

A pending bill on Beacon Hill this session proposes removing a controversial element of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

The bill, known as the Thrive Act, would make two big changes: ending the tests’ use as a high school graduation requirement and preventing the state from taking over districts with the lowest performance on the standardized tests.

The bill’s supporters gathered over Zoom Wednesday to argue that the “high-stakes” MCAS has been a failure, blocking vulnerable students from pursuing their goals in higher education and careers.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, has thrown its support behind the bill. MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy said that when test scores matter so much, “educators abandon best practices — of providing authentic hands-on vibrant, student-directed learning experiences.”

The MTA commissioned a report on the effects of high-stakes testing in the state. That report, prepared by advocacy groups Citizens for Public Schools and FairTest, looks back at the past three years for evidence the test serves as an obstacle to students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

The state’s test-based graduation requirement was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2022. During that pause, statewide graduation rates increased by 2.1 percentage points, with much larger leaps among selected student populations.

Report co-author Harry Feder of FairTest said that “natural experiment” showed that the test requirement is “suppressing” graduation rates, and that other states had similar experiences, including New York and Louisiana.

In the report, Feder and co-author Dan French of Citizens for Public Schools note that the “welcome bump in graduation rates is likely to be short-lived,” given that the graduation requirement is now back in effect — and becoming a tougher hurdle to clear. The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted last August to raise the passing score, starting with the class of 2026.

Meanwhile, New York may suspend its own “exit exam” after an ongoing review by its Board of Regents, Feder said. If they do, it would leave Massachusetts in a small, seven-state minority in maintaining a testing requirement at graduation.

Among the speakers Wednesday was Naghely Guilamo, a graduate of Salem High School.

Even after she finished high school in 2011, Guilamo struggled for years to pass the MCAS math exam and get her diploma, taking the test four or five times.

Guilamo described the test as a kind of psychological barrier between herself and her career goals in cosmetology.

“I was so hard on myself, because I’m like, ‘I’m already an adult,’” Guilamo said. “Why am I still going back to my high school to take this test, to be able to work or to be able to achieve the goals that I want to achieve?”

The latest MCAS scores, published last fall based on the 2022 test, showed a slow and uneven recovery from a profound pandemic-related drop in performance statewide.

Last week, education-reform groups put out their own report in favor of maintaining the MCAS with some adjustments — including a plan to offer it in languages other than English. Mary Tamer, head of Democrats for Education Reform, said that “we have no other way of knowing exactly how each child is doing in the classroom.”

Union officials and other advocates stressed Wednesday that they aren’t proposing to get rid of the MCAS altogether — only strip it of what they say are outsized repercussions for students who struggle with standardized tests.

It’s likely that the bill will take at least a year to come up for serious debate and be voted on at the end of the legislative session in the summer of 2024.

But one of the bill’s leading sponsors, Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro, sounded a more urgent note Wednesday.

Hawkins, who is a retired 10th-grade math teacher, said the specter of the MCAS “dominated everything we did for the entire year of math… It disrupts learning for the whole school.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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