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No need for Beacon Hill to cancel MCAS or Boston-state school partnership

The decisions are best left to the state’s education commissioner.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley speaks during a press conference coronavirus update with Governor Charlie Baker on March 25.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley speaks during a press conference coronavirus update with Governor Charlie Baker on March 25.Sam Doran/Pool

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on almost all aspects of daily life, and schooling is no exception. Kids are now home, forcing a scramble to keep them learning.

That disruption has led to a call to cancel this year’s MCAS exams — and, further, to put off the education-improvement partnership established between Boston Public Schools and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In times like these, it’s predictable that self-interested parties will call for canceling things they have long opposed. No surprise, then, that the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which is inveterately hostile to having the MCAS as a graduation requirement in normal times or using the exam’s results to help gauge the performance of schools and districts, is waging a full-court press to get legislators to cancel this year’s exam.


Actually, that determination should be made in a logical and disinterested fashion, after careful consideration of the trade-offs by the official with the proper expertise. In this case, that means leaving the decision to Jeff Riley, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, who came to that job after serving as the highly effective receiver and superintendent of the Lawrence Public Schools.

Viewed through that prism, it’s also easy to dismiss the call by three Boston City Council members to postpone the joint effort by DESE and BPS to boost district performance, with a particular focus on the district’s 33 most problematic schools.

Those councilors — council president Kim Janey, Lydia Edwards, and Annissa Essaibi-George — want the state to hit the pause button on the partnership. Their call is wrong-headed. DESE and BPS have amicably agreed to delay the process of developing performance targets and measurement for two months, an action that provides enough flexibility for now. Further, despite the unfortunate and overheated rhetoric of some of the partnership opponents, these interventions shouldn’t be viewed with reflexive skepticism: Look at the improvements we’ve seen in Lawrence and Springfield as a result of the state getting involved.


Whither the MCAS exams, normally given each spring in grades 3 through 8 and in 10th grade, is a more complicated matter. Let’s start with the easy part. Passing the MCAS in the lower grades isn’t necessary for promotion. Rather, those test results are used for student-diagnostic and school-evaluation purposes. That being the case, if school does reconvene on this side of summer, it’s better to use the time usually devoted to test-taking for classroom learning.

The 10th-grade MCAS exam, which students must pass to graduate high school, is trickier. If school does reconvene in May and June, the MCAS could take place in the latter month. One advantage is that sophomores who want to get the exam out of the way would have an opportunity to do so. Further, seniors who have not yet passed would have a last shot at taking the test in time to qualify for the second, mid-summer, graduation ceremonies some districts hold. But given the learning time lost due to school closures, it wouldn’t be fair to use those results for school-accountability purposes.

If school doesn’t reconvene this spring/summer, or if it does so in starkly foreshortened fashion, then the better course would be to have this year’s sophomores take the test next year, when it will also be given to the class of 2023.


Importantly, those tests could be used for school-accountability purposes. But that schedule would deprive this year’s sophomores of one of their five opportunities to pass the test during their high school years. (They can, of course, try again after finishing high school.) On the plus side, those junior-year MCAS-takers should be very well prepared, since they will have had an extra year of school under their belts.

The decision depends in large part on whether school reconvenes this spring or is out until late summer. The federal government has already granted the state a waiver from national testing requirements. Governor Baker has asked lawmakers for legislation leaving the decision about this year’s MCAS to Commissioner Riley. The House, generally stronger on educational-improvement efforts, has passed that legislation much as the governor wanted. The Senate, where members are sometimes wont to wobble in the face of union pressure, will probably take it up this week. Senators should follow the House lead and put this decision where it belongs: in the able hands of Jeff Riley.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.