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Mass. cancels MCAS exams

In an unprecedented move, Massachusetts education officials Friday night canceled this spring’s MCAS exams, weeks after educators mounted a spirited campaign to ditch the standardized tests amid a statewide closure of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley notified superintendents and charter school leaders about his decision hours after Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill giving Riley the authority to cancel the high-stakes standardized tests.

Massachusetts has never before canceled MCAS testing, which has been used for more than two decades to judge school performance and award high school diplomas.

“In light of the ongoing health crisis, I am canceling this spring’s regular administration of grade-level MCAS tests for students in grades 3-10,” Riley wrote in a memorandum to school leaders.

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The decision comes as superintendents, teachers, and education advocates have questioned whether students will return to school on May 4 when Baker’s order is slated to expire. Baker said on Friday he would make a decision about the school year before then. Many districts have already developed contingency plans that include ramping up remote-learning efforts.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, expressed relief Friday night that the tests had been canceled.

“This crucial step will enable educators and communities to fully focus on providing our students with the best and healthiest possible remote learning environments as we weather the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tang said in a statement.

Riley has still not decided what to do about the fate of thousands of high school seniors who have not yet passed the MCAS. Teacher unions have pressed Riley to exempt those students from the requirement and allow them to graduate.

“I am considering various options and further action will be forthcoming,” Riley wrote.

Riley did not provide details about the options under consideration. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would have to approve any changes to the MCAS graduation requirement.

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Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said in an interview Friday night that canceling MCAS for sophomores this year could instill anxiety in some of them. He expects that this year’s 10th-graders will have to take the test next year as juniors.

He said he supported the commissioner’s decision, calling it an inevitable action.

“Whether MCAS would be given was not in doubt for any school leader in Massachusetts,” said Koocher, but he added that the somewhat lengthy approval process gave anti-testing advocates an opportunity to mobilize a public campaign to halt the tests and claim victory.

Beacon Hill had to act because the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act requires annual standardized testing in public schools in grades 4, 8, and 10 and also requires high school students to pass the 10th-grade exams in order to graduate.

State officials also had to file a waiver with the federal government, which mandates annual testing in grades 3 to 8 and at least one grade in high school. However, President Trump last month suspended those requirements for states that expressed interest, and Massachusetts’ request received approval.

Yet even as officials took steps to pave the way to cancel the exams, Riley refused until Friday to say whether he would actually take advantage of the resulting authority. His lack of transparency frustrated teacher unions, parents, and other critics of standardized testing, who urged Riley to publicly state his position.

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The Massachusetts Teachers Association applauded MCAS’s cancelation.

“Educators, students, and families have long criticized the MCAS testing regimen for narrowly defining the curriculum and for being used to punish schools and districts,” said Merrie Najimy, the association’s president in a statement. "Pausing MCAS this year provides all of us with an opportunity to rethink the testing requirements.”


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