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Teachers, parents urge state to cancel MCAS testing

A growing number of teachers, education advocates, and parents are urging state education officials to cancel this year’s MCAS testing, arguing the prolonged closure of schools will likely create significant gaps in learning and could hurt test results.

More than 5,000 letters have been sent to state leaders amid the pandemic imploring them to halt the tests and suspend a state mandate for high school students to pass the math, English, and science exams to receive their diplomas, according to Citizens for Public Schools, an advocacy organization opposed to high-stakes testing, which organized the letter-writing campaign.

“It doesn’t seem like the results would be a valid measure of anything,” said Lisa Guisbond, the group’s executive director in an interview, calling the tests an unnecessary distraction. “We need to be focusing on basic needs — making sure our students are safe, have food, health care, and mental health support if they need it. High-stakes standardized testing is not among those basic needs.”

The push comes as states nationwide — from California to Florida — have announced their intent to scrap standardized testing, required under federal law, for this spring because of widespread closures spurred by the pandemic. Those moves received a huge boost last Friday when President Trump announced he would suspend federal mandates for annual standardized tests in English and math grades 3-8 and at least one grade in high school. Interested states would need to file a waiver with the US Department of Education.

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But Massachusetts officials have been silent on whether they will seek a federal waiver. And if they did, state officials would also face other hurdles. Currently, state law calls for MCAS testing in grades 4, 8, and 10.

In one possible indication that a last-minute halt might be in the works, Governor Charlie Baker said on Tuesday he filed legislation to transfer MCAS decision-making from the Legislature to Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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Even some of the most ardent MCAS supporters say the state must provide districts with some relief.

“The MCAS is a central element of the law that has driven the state’s historic success on every measure of the national and international student achievement,” said Jamie Gass, director of education policy at Pioneer Institute, a Boston think-tank that supports high-stakes testing. “But given the serious realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools being closed across Massachusetts, and the logistics of testing protocols, the state should explore postponing MCAS until this national emergency has subsided and schooling in the Commonwealth resumes.”

Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said Massachusetts is an outlier.

“It’s odd to see Massachusetts not acting at all when other states — blue, red and in between — have acted,” he said.

Schools across Massachusetts began closing two weeks ago and the remainder shut down last Monday, under orders from Baker. The closures have upended education for nearly 1 million public school children, bringing abrupt ends to structured lessons and critical preparations for the MCAS, which was supposed to begin this month.

While districts are encouraging learning at home — distributing printed materials or providing lessons online — the quantity and rigor vary greatly. Some students also lack internet access or computers at home and parents with the know-how or time to help them out. And the emotional toll of the pandemic may prevent students from even focusing on school.

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“It’s a lot to handle,” said Nivea Williams, a junior at the O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Boston and a member of the Hyde Square Task Force, a youth organization. “Students are not getting the same experience at home as they would in the classroom. I think the MCAS should be postponed.”

So far, state officials have committed only to rescheduling MCAS testing sessions for later this spring, although they say they are exploring all options.

There have been no discussions — at least publicly — about allowing the exams, which have moved largely online, to be taken at home. The state has set strict protocols for the administration of the exams at schools to prevent cheating, which would be difficult to monitor in home settings.

Some advocates say it would be asking too much of teachers and administrators to switch their attention to MCAS exams after students return to school, requiring them to catch students up on learning, refresh test-taking tips, and calm any frayed nerves about being in large groups again amid the pandemic. Schools are slated to begin opening again in two weeks and others in late April, although that could change depending on the pandemic’s course.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said she was disappointed that MCAS testing remains on the calendar.

“It’s the wrong thing to hold onto,” she said. “Right now the emotional anxiety and trauma our families are experiencing at home as a result of the coronavirus is the first priority we should be focusing on."

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Tom Scott, executive director for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said his organization favors postponing the MCAS, citing loss learning time and the emotional toll on students.

Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner who is critical of standardized testing, said that if MCAS testing does take place this spring, the results should be used in a very different way.

“It would be more appropriate to use any MCAS testing this year as a guide for our educators and a means to assess potential learning loss following this period of school closure, not as an accountability measure or requirement for graduation,” she said in a statement. “The only thing I want our kids focused on right now is feeling safe and secure, connected to their friends, and engaged with their new learning platforms.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.