Opposition to MCAS grows

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  • Northampton Association of School Employees Vice President Heather Brown talks about organizing a standout in front of Northampton City Hall on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in opposition to MCAS testing during the pandemic. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Meg Robbins, left, John Crand and Northampton High School senior Virginia Crand take part in a standout in front of Northampton City Hall, Friday, in opposition to MCAS testing during the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School ELL teacher Sue Sullivan, center, speaks at a rally Friday in front of Northampton City Hall to oppose MCAS testing during the pandemic. She is joined by, from left, JFK seventh-grader Eliza Brown and her mother, Heather Brown, Leeds parent Kristen Elde (obscured by sign) and Northampton High School parent Amy Martyn. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jenny Bender, left, and Kristen Elde talk about reasons to oppose MCAS testing in the midst of the pandemic during a standout organized by the Northampton Association of School Employees in front of Northampton City Hall on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 12/6/2020 8:37:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Opposition to MCAS tests amid the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming more visible in communities in western Massachusetts.

“It’s an incredible cruelty to do to children,” said Meg Robbins. “And an impossible task for teachers.”

Robbins, a retired schoolteacher and grandparent of students in Northampton, was one of about a dozen people who gathered Friday in front of Northampton City Hall to protest the administration of the standardized tests this school year.

As the pandemic took hold last spring and schools moved abruptly to remote learning, education officials sought and received a federal waiver and legislative authorization allowing them to cancel spring MCAS testing. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tweaked its testing schedule this school year and plans to conduct English and math MCAS tests for high schoolers in January and May. Testing for students in Grades 3 through 8 is expected in April and May.

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said late last month that federal guidance has indicated that “testing will go forward as planned, and that blanket waivers should not be expected this year.” This could change with the changeover to the next administration, he noted.

Friday’s rally in Northampton reflects a groundswell of opposition to the tests locally. School committees in Amherst passed a resolution last week calling for a three-year moratorium on the use of MCAS tests, which will be sent to Gov. Charlie Baker and other state education officials. The Holyoke School Committee passed a similar resolution, and the Easthampton teachers union plans to vote on the matter.

The protest outside Northampton City Hall was organized by Sue Sullivan, who teaches English language learners at Northampton High School, and was promoted by both the Northampton Education Association, the union that represents teachers and staff in Northampton schools, and Racial Equity and Learning, a Northampton community organization.

“It’s an equity issue for us,” said Jenny Bender, a REAL member and Northampton schools parent.

Sullivan attended the protest alongside her daughter Virginia Crand, a senior at NHS.

“I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know that this test is happening,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also said that the test disadvantages students of color, students in poverty and ELL students, and she was far from the only person at the protest to express objections to the MCAS in general.

“High-stakes tests are used to punish schools and teachers,” said Deborah Keisch, another REAL member and Northampton schools parent. “Schools are under an immense amount of pressure, right now, in the pandemic. There’s no reason to further that pressure in an already under-resourced time.”

Keisch said she didn’t think the MCAS should exist at all.

Another protesters was Heather Brown, the vice president of the schools union.

“If you’re working in a school right now, you just can’t fathom how kids are going to do MCAS at this point,” she said.

Brown and Sullivan said that those concerned with MCAS should reach out to Commissioner Riley.

Widespread opposition

Objections to the high-stakes tests haven’t been confined to Northampton.

In Amherst, the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees passed a unanimous resolution last week calling “for a moratorium on the MCAS as a graduation requirement for three years” and “for a moratorium on the use of MCAS results to make other ‘high-stakes’ decisions about students, educators and districts for three years.”

Amherst representative Peter Demling, who put the resolution together, said it combines language from a similar resolution adopted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a bill filed by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, over the summer.

The resolution also speaks to the inequities of remote learning and the social and emotional impacts it is having, and notes that COVID-19 and remote learning has “negatively and disproportionately affected students with learning disabilities, students of lower socioeconomic status, ELL students and students who identify as minorities.”

Additionally, the resolution calls for establishing a statewide commission and local task forces to put forward alternative approaches and reassess the state’s approach to goal-setting and student evaluation.

It will be sent to Riley, Gov. Charlie Baker, Education Secretary James Peyser, Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Joint Education Committee Co-Chairman Jason Lewis and Joint Education Committee Co-Chairwoman Alice Peisch.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said she is comfortable with the broad language of the resolution.

“This is about stating our beliefs and our values about this,” McDonald said.

In Easthampton, Nellie Taylor, president of the Easthampton Education Association, said she has found among the union’s membership a consensus against the administration of MCAS this school year. She said membership will be voting on that and on a no-confidence vote against Riley.

Mildred Lefebvre, vice chairwoman of the Holyoke School Committee, wrote a letter on behalf of the committee to Holyoke’s State House delegation, incoming Rep. Pat Duffy, D-Holyoke, the governor, Riley and members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, asking that the mandate to administer the MCAS and ACCESS Tests during the current school year be reconsidered.

The letter discussed both the time and resources needed to administer the tests in-person during the pandemic, as well as the issue of the safety of this kind of in-person testing.

“Our families are hurting, and bringing students into schools for the sole purpose of taking ‘the test,’ will not, and should not, be an urgent priority for families,” reads part of the letter.

This story includes reporting by State House News Service.

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