MCAS critics bring call to end test to hearing

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

State House News Service
Published: 9/20/2021 7:38:35 PM

By 2018, more than a decade after he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Ryan Boyd had passed nearly every MCAS standardized exam he needed to get his diploma from Marlborough High School.

All that remained in his way was the math test. But in his final try during his senior year, Boyd fell two points short.

“This is the only reason why I was unable to obtain my diploma at my graduation in 2018,” Boyd told the Legislature’s Education Committee on Monday. “Do you know how heartbroken I was to learn that? I want to repeat again today for everyone in this room: the only reason I was prevented from getting that diploma in 2018 was because I failed my math MCAS by two points after I put in so much hard work and dedication into passing the test.”

More than 50,000 students have faced similar circumstances the last two decades, a point that a chorus of lawmakers and education reform advocates hammered on Monday as they called for the Legislature to eliminate the state’s MCAS graduation requirements or pause the tests.

“Please do not ever let another child’s future be affected by two points,” said Boyd, finally received his diploma last spring after the school retroactively waived testing requirements.

Teachers unions and some education activists have long targeted the state’s MCAS system, complaining that setting the exams as the bar all students must clear forces teachers to narrow their focus on test preparation and creates unnecessary stress in the classroom.

A bill filed by Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. James Hawkins (S 293/H 612) would decouple MCAS from graduation and instead offer what Comerford called “multiple pathways” for students to prove they meet the benchmarks to complete high school, some of which would not require a standardized test.

The legislation would also pilot new ways of measuring district and teacher performance less reliant on MCAS scores and more influenced by community input in partnership with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.

“I believe in accountability,” Comerford said Monday. “What I do not believe in is allowing a single test to determine whether or not a student receives a high school diploma, regardless of whether or not that student passes all of their requisite coursework.”

Lawmakers created the MCAS system in a 1993 education law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were administered in 1998, and since the class of 2003, students have been required to achieve sufficient scores to graduate.

During Monday’s hearing, union leaders, school committee members, educators and students — including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which on Friday linked the tests to white supremacy — slammed MCAS as a faulty system that does more harm than good.

Asked about the push to change or replace MCAS exams, Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday he would be “very aggressive about supporting the ongoing process of using diagnostic tools to ensure that kids are getting the basic education that they’re entitled to.”

The implementation of MCAS exams, Baker said, led to a “profound and significant improvement” in education performance and created a “level playing field” to review how districts, school staff and students fare.

Citizens for Public Schools Executive Director Lisa Guisbond told lawmakers that since 2003, more than 52,000 Massachusetts students have reached the end of their senior years without meeting MCAS graduation requirements. More than two-thirds of those, she said, had disabilities.

“The ravages of COVID, disproportionately visited on our communities of color, underscore the need to change an assessment system that has done more to cement inequalities and racism in place than remove them,” Guisbond said.

Supporters of the system say the constellation of tests plays a crucial role in tracking how Massachusetts schools are faring on a statewide level and identifying gaps that need to be closed.

Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Ed Lambert told lawmakers that amending MCAS standards or graduation requirements could hamstring efforts to lift underserved districts, particularly amid implementation of a recent school funding reform law known as the Student Opportunity Act.

“The information that MCAS provides is integral to understanding if we’re serving students in the way that our state constitution, the Student Opportunity Act and the moment require of us,” Lambert said.

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