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Teacher unions push to cancel MCAS testing

A state law that mandates MCAS testing in grades 4, 8, and 10, the latter of which high school students must pass in order to graduate.
A state law that mandates MCAS testing in grades 4, 8, and 10, the latter of which high school students must pass in order to graduate.Jim Walker/Globe file

The state’s largest teachers union has stepped up its efforts to kill MCAS testing this spring, outraged the House passed a bill Thursday night that could allow the standardized exams to take place amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In an e-mail sent to its local chapters shortly after the vote, the Massachusetts Teachers Association implored members to lobby the Senate to block MCAS testing. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure soon.

“At a time of tremendous uncertainty and anxiety, our public-school districts need to be focused on ensuring the health and safety of our school communities and on continuing to find ways to ensure that all our students, particularly those who are most vulnerable, have access to the support services and learning opportunities that they need and deserve,” the Massachusetts Teachers Association said in the e-mail. “It is time for Massachusetts to join the growing list of states that have canceled standardized assessments for this school year.”

The push comes as schools statewide have been shuttered for about three weeks, under orders from Governor Charlie Baker in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As of now, the soonest that classes could resume is early May, but that all depends on the course of the global pandemic.

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The House bill, passed Thursday night, gives Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley the discretion to waive requirements in a state law that mandates MCAS testing in grades 4, 8, and 10, the latter of which high school students must pass in order to graduate.

Riley has been vague in public forums about whether he would cancel MCAS testing, saying most recently at Tuesday’s state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting that he wanted to be respectful of the legislative process and would make decisions in short order if he received the power to act. That has frustrated teacher unions and other advocates who worry that Riley will push ahead with the tests in some form and decided to lobby the Legislature to halt the tests.

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Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said it’s “totally absurd” that the House didn’t cancel the MCAS tests, calling its members tone deaf.

“Teachers across the state are furious,” she said. “This is a pressure-cooker issue across the state. If MCAS doesn’t get canceled, the lid will blow off.”

Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Education Committee, said any characterization that the House bill promotes MCAS testing this spring is “terribly inaccurate.”

“I think it’s highly unlikely we will do MCAS testing,” Peisch said on Friday.

She said House members did not outright ban MCAS testing this spring because the decision was being made under emergency legislation filed by Baker less than two weeks ago to deal with a host of pandemic-related issues and there was not adequate time to vet all aspects of the MCAS question.

For instance, Peisch said one issue that might need further investigation is the impact of canceling any high school science exams. Students, who have a choice of taking exams in biology and other specialties, tend to prefer taking those tests the same year they study the subject so the material is fresh in their minds.

“We felt the commissioner and [the state education] board should have the flexibility to make decisions in the best interest of kids in the midst of this horrific crisis,” she said.

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The legislation also would allow the commissioner and the state education board to allow high school seniors who haven’t passed MCAS yet to receive their diplomas. It’s unclear how many seniors could be in this predicament. But last year about 2,700 twelfth-graders never passed MCAS by graduation.

Scrapping standardized testing for one year is a somewhat cumbersome process. Federal law also requires annual standardized testing in grades 3-8 and at least one grade in high school. Last month, President Trump said he would allow states to file waivers from the requirement for this spring and within days nearly every state, including Massachusetts, filed a request.

Unlike in his public comments, Riley was explicitly clear about his intentions in seeking the federal waiver, arguing it was not possible to administer the MCAS exams and hold schools accountable for the results because of the extensive school closures, according to a copy of the waiver.

Although the federal government approved the waiver, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stressed in releasing a copy of the waiver to the Globe that officials have not decided whether they would use the waiver and noted legislative approval was still pending.


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