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Defenders of high-stakes MCAS turn out for legislative hearing on proposed ballot question

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

Over more than three hours of discussion about a proposal to stop using MCAS exam scores as a high school graduation requirement, lawmakers kept returning to one specific question: if the measure passed, how would Massachusetts ensure that every school district has roughly the same baseline for determining if students have earned their diplomas?

Opponents of the idea, including former Education Secretary Paul Reville, warned that decoupling MCAS from graduation requirements would usher in a new era of scattershot standards and undermine decades of previous education reform.

Supporters, led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, argued that the existing system puts undue pressure on students and that the exams fare worse at measuring academic performance than more teacher-driven options like classroom tests.

And in the middle of debate was a new committee of four representatives and four senators, tasked with reviewing each of the ballot questions that the Legislature could address in the coming months, or just leave them to voters to have the final say.

Members of the panel did not make their views explicit Monday, but they asked more pointed questions — and a greater number of questions overall — of proponents than they did of opponents.

Many of their comments and inquiries suggested concerns about the system that would emerge if MCAS scores were no longer a prerequisite for a diploma, particularly if individual districts implement different graduation requirements.

"I don't have a dog around the MCAS. I don't particularly care, except it is the way we assess today what's going on in this town versus what's going on in this town in, yes, a narrow way," said Sen. Cindy Friedman, the Senate chair of the panel. "This ballot question will take all of that away, any chance of that away. How do we ensure that our kids, no matter where they live, are getting the education that they need?"

"I hear your question. I'm grappling with the fact that there's still deep inequity with the MCAS," replied Rev. Willie Bodrick II, president of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement and a supporter of the ballot question. "I'm not sure that the MCAS is actually going to fix the problem that we're actually trying to address."

"Before we did any of this, we couldn't even figure out what was going on," Friedman, an Arlington Democrat, shot back. "I'm just asking: what's that going to be, and how do we ensure that happens? This ballot question does not do that. It takes something away. It doesn't put something in its place. That's what I'm trying to grapple with."

Other legislators lodged similar points during the hearing.

Rep. Michael Day of Stoneham asked if giving districts "unfettered ability" to dictate graduation requirements would lead to "a little bit of a doom cycle."

Sen. Paul Feeney of Foxborough said the question as written could create a "wild, wild west of a patchwork of different assessments across the commonwealth."

Stephen Zrike, former Holyoke Superintendent who now leads the public schools in Salem, said MCAS should remain a graduation requirement.

"Not because I think districts should be punished but because without some accountability, I do worry about the motivation to get students prepared for the world beyond high school," Zrike said.

Sponsors of the measure on multiple occasions argued that taking away the MCAS-linked graduation requirements would not lead to a chaotic, uneven approach because Massachusetts education officials already set statewide education standards.

"Before the MCAS, there were no state standards. We have the state standards now. We have the curriculum. No district in this state can afford to not adhere to those standards," said Kirsten Frazier, a ballot question supporter who teaches English language learners in Worcester. "Those standards, that Mass Core that we have, all of our curriculum has to meet that. That is extensive and it is the gold standard model across the country."

Ed Lambert, a former state representative who today leads the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education that opposes the MCAS ballot proposal, called it "misleading" for question backers to point to state education standards.

"The ballot language question says that students would be required to complete coursework certified by a student's district as demonstrating mastery of the competencies contained in the state academic standards," Lambert said. "While they attempt to suggest that this means that the state standards will still apply, we all know — as we all learn from our high school teachers in our statistics and research courses — if you don't have uniformity in how you assess something, like achievement, then you don't have a single standard. Only a common assessment can assure that."

Beacon Hill created the MCAS exams under a 1993 education reform law that sought to boost school performance and increase accountability. The first exams were administered in 1998, and they became a high school graduation requirement in 2003.

Today, ballot question supporters contend, the stakes for scoring high enough on MCAS have become so high that teachers need to focus too much of their attention on preparing students for standardized exams rather than ensuring students have mastered the material — or are ready for life after high school — more broadly.

"There is a difference between a student demonstrating the depth of their knowledge to the Massachusetts state framework standards and answering test questions. It's two different skill sets, and when people say we shouldn't be teaching to the test, the problem is you have to," said MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy. "You have to teach students how to look for the word 'not' in a multiple-choice question because that's what will catch some of my dyslexic learners, to look for the answer in a picture, to compare and contrast a reading passage. Let's say the passage is on baseball and you didn't understand the game — then you have to teach them skills on how to look for that information within the text."

The ballot question would not eliminate MCAS tests altogether — in fact, as supporters pointed out Monday, some standardized exams are required under federal law.

Instead, it would spike the mandate that students obtain a state-level "competency determination" through MCAS before they can receive a diploma, leaving in place individual districts' graduation requirements.

"If we were to abandon a minimum statewide standard for graduation in Massachusetts, we would absolutely be taking a giant leap backwards in education policy," said Doug Howgate, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which opposes the ballot question. "We would absolutely be doing something that was antithetical to 30 years of education reform in Massachusetts, and most importantly, we would be doing something that would be harming the 2,500 to 2,800 students every year who are struggling to graduate from high school."

The vast majority of Massachusetts high schoolers achieve the scores they need on MCAS exams to qualify for a diploma, according to state research. Data compiled in the fall by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Matt Hills found that 96% of the roughly 70,000 students in each graduating class fulfilled the MCAS competency determination.

About three-quarters of students who do not pass the exams also fail to meet their local district requirements to graduate. The remainder — about 700 students per year, or 1% of each class— met local standards for graduation but left high school without a diploma solely because they did not get sufficient MCAS scores, the data show.

"Is it your position that what motivates you is that there are 700 students a year, let's say 1%, that don't pass the MCAS and then are prevented from graduating? Or is it your position that it's just taking something from the other 99% during the school year?" Rep. Kenneth Gordon, a Bedford Democrat, asked union leaders. "If that's your position, then how would we as a society assess how we would not go back to a different standard for 351 districts in the commonwealth?"

MTA President Max Page replied that even if only a small fraction of students are denied diplomas just because of their MCAS scores, "one is too many."

"It's bigger than that," he added. "The system has distorted what happens in the classroom. When you say there is this high-stakes test every year and it's going to build toward that, it shapes what happens in the classroom. In low-income districts, it is actually even more intensely that the whole curriculum is built around test prep."

"It is the standards and our educators work that creates the value of a diploma for Massachusetts public high school. It is not the MCAS that determines the value of a Massachusetts high school diploma," Page said.

Committee co-chair Rep. Alice Peisch, who previously served as the top representative on the Legislature's Education Committee, suggested Monday that attaching stakes to standardized tests ensures that students take them more seriously.

Peisch serves as vice chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, and she says the group "struggles" with the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress exams "because it's voluntary."

"Getting enough students to take it — one of the factors that we've been told exists is that it's very difficult to get high school students to engage in something that they don't see as directly beneficial or having some consequence to them," she said.

The Education Committee under Peisch's leadership sent a similar bill ending the MCAS graduation requirement to a dead-end study order in the 2021-2022 lawmaking session.

Lawmakers are deciding if they want to wade into topics covered by half a dozen planned ballot questions, some of which emerged in the first place because their sponsors are frustrated with legislative inaction.

The Legislature can either approve any of the ballot questions or propose a substitute. If the House and Senate take no action by May 1, sponsors must collect more voter signatures to secure a spot on the November ballot.

Initiative petition campaigns sometimes put pressure on lawmakers to broker a compromise, and Feeney asked at one point if MTA leaders were open to having a "conversation beyond what's written in the ballot initiative itself."

Page, the union's president, replied that MTA also supports standalone legislation dubbed the Thrive Act "as written," which would similarly eliminate the use of MCAS as a graduation requirement.

The dynamics might change now that Gov. Maura Healey has joined the debate. Healey's education secretary, Patrick Tutwiler, said in an interview that aired Sunday that both he and the governor oppose the ballot question.

"I support the idea of there being a standard, a state standard for high school graduation," Tutwiler said in an interview on WBZ's Keller @ Large. "That question, if it passes, would deliver us to a place of no standard — essentially, 351 different standards for high school graduation. I don't believe that is the direction to go. The governor does not believe that is the direction to go, so no, I do not support it."

He signaled that the administration could be on board with changing the tests themselves.

"Could it be a different assessment? Absolutely. Should the assessment evolve and maybe look different ways? Absolutely, and I'm more than open to that conversation," Tutwiler said. "But inasmuch as it relates to a standard, I believe there should be one."

At a press conference before Monday's hearing, Page said he found Tutwiler's comments "disappointing" and referenced the statewide standards.

"They shape teacher preparation, they shape licensure and they are what our educators behind me referred to as they develop the curriculum in all their schools. So in fact, it says right there on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website that these standards were designed and they do provide a universal set of curriculum standards across the entire state," Page said. "We have very strong standards. We need to strengthen and support educators being able to teach with those standards in mind."

This post includes reporting from SHNS's Sam Drysdale and NEPM's Charlize Hernandez.

Full disclosure: Some NEPM employees are in an employee union affiliated with the Massachusetts Teachers Association. That affiliation does not affect how we cover the news.

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