Dear Jo: Time to rethink the MCAS

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Published: 7/2/2020 2:56:51 PM
Modified: 7/2/2020 2:56:41 PM

DEAR JO: While I share your view that high-stakes testing is a flawed method to measure a student’s success, what can we do to ensure that children with learning disabilities and other learning differences continue to be educated? Prior to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), these students (and any student who didn’t learn in the typical way) were passed from one grade to the next without having learned the foundational things they needed, setting them back more and more each year. Many graduated barely able to read and write. For me, MCAS meant that schools had to take responsibility for each student in the classroom, not just the easiest to educate. I wouldn’t want to lose that.

— Valle Dwight, Florence

DEAR VALLE, You’ve asked a critical question. It’s not just relevant to students in special education. It’s also relevant for economically disadvantaged students, students of color, English learners and children living in foster care.

High stakes testing (like the MCAS) doesn’t necessarily ensure high standards. I too want exceptionally high standards in public education for all our commonwealth’s children.

I filed legislation that would put a four-year moratorium on the high stakes nature of the MCAS exam and launch a process whereby the commonwealth would choose another standardized method of evaluating students that is both fairer and would offer a more transformative teaching and learning experience in our schools.

This is important especially now because of the COVID-related havoc in our schools, the abject stress on teachers and the significantly inequitable loss in learning experienced by our students.

High stakes with regard to MCAS means that the test ultimately decides whether a student can graduate from high school with a diploma or graduate with what’s called a certificate of attendance. Disproportionately more of the at-risk students I listed above leave without a diploma, even though they have passed their requisite coursework. And a diploma is a passport to higher education, solid jobs and lifelong opportunities.

Given space constraints, I’ll focus only on special education.

Louis Kruger, an associate professor at Northeastern University, did a foundational piece of research on the impact of MCAS testing on special education students, noting the graduation disparities, concluding that the MCAS does “disproportionate harm” to these students. The study found that even though students in special education comprised only 16% of all high school seniors in 2011, they nonetheless comprised 75% of the high school seniors not passing the MCAS-related graduation requirements.

“The overwhelming majority of the students who are failing to meet the state’s test-related graduation requirements are students with disabilities,” Kruger’s report states. “If you are a high school senior in special education, you are 16 times more likely to fail the MCAS requirements than your peers in general education. The MCAS graduation requirement has become an unintentional mechanism for preventing many students in special education from obtaining a high school diploma.”

To answer your question as thoroughly as possible, I asked Dr. Kruger if he had an analysis for 2019. Here’s an excerpt of his reply to me on Wednesday: “Students with disabilities are still being disproportionately negatively impacted by the [MCAS] diploma requirement. Although they were only 16.4% of the 2019 Massachusetts senior class, they comprised 68.9% of Massachusetts seniors who had not passed all three of the high school MCAS tests by the end of their senior year.”

Kruger also pointed me to his analysis of Massachusetts’ performance via the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He looked at reading and math scores from 2009 to 2019 and found that in 4th Grade reading, 4th Grade math, 8th Grade reading, and 8th Grade math, the gap between the performance of general education students and special education students in Massachusetts had widened by 37.1, 32.9, 41.2, and 46.7 points, respectively.

The Student Opportunity Act, passed into law in 2019, recognized that the state has far too long left these students behind — even with the MCAS in place.

Yet that massive reform didn’t go far enough when it came to special education. That’s why I filed a new bill with Rep. Dan Carey to begin the process necessary to move to an actual count of special education students rather than an assumed percentage. You can see our testimony on the bill here. Although our bill did not advance this session we’ll certainly keep pushing.

Now because of COVID-19, these same at-risk students are at even greater peril as COVID’s impact on the learning loss continues to be more deeply understood. A recent New York Times opinion piece noted, “Research suggests that the sudden switch to online instruction has cost some students a full year of academic progress. These harms disproportionately affect children in homes without computers and stable internet connections, deepening educational inequality and widening racial and economic divides. The disruption of learning can have lifetime effects on students’ income and health.”

This is a moment of reckoning for the commonwealth.

As we face a continued public health crisis and plummeting revenue, we should jettison a failing and costly (in so many ways) test, double down on the promises of the Student Opportunity Act, and go much further for our students and schools long left behind and now harmed disproportionately by COVID-19.

State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district i n the Massachusetts Legislature.

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