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State plans to go ahead with MCAS tests this year

A teacher goes over detail of the lesson of the day.
A teacher goes over detail of the lesson of the day.Globe file

Massachusetts education officials on Tuesday said they plan to push ahead with MCAS testing this school year, even as many public school students continue to take most or all of their classes at home and teachers call for shelving the standardized tests during the pandemic.

State officials said the standards-based exams, which were canceled last spring due to the pandemic, are necessary to gauge how much learning loss has occurred since the widespread shutdown of schools 10 months ago.

While national researchers have predicted huge and growing academic deficits across the country, Massachusetts education officials have been unable to quantify the pandemic’s impact on the state’s more than 900,000 public school students. About half of students are learning exclusively from home, while most of the others are splitting their time between classrooms and home-based instruction.

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“We really believe we need this testing primarily for diagnostic purposes because we need to know how much learning loss has taken place among our students,” state education commissioner Jeffrey Riley said in an interview. “Right now we are hypothesizing that students learning exclusively remotely are probably going to have more gaps than students who are in-person [full time] or in hybrid learning. We need this data to figure that out.”

The data will be used to develop approaches to help students overcome learning loss and won’t be used to punish schools for low test scores, he said. The state will not designate any schools as underperforming, a status that can lead to state oversight, based on this year’s scores, he said.

The plan, which requires the approval of the state education board, also will reduce by about half the amount of material students in grades 3 through 8 will be tested on, providing a large enough sample to determine where students stand. Tenth-graders will be tested on all material in English, math, and science since they must pass MCAS in order to graduate.

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However, this year’s seniors who haven’t yet passed MCAS can pass a course covering the material to fulfill the testing requirement, a step the state took last year.

Some details of the plan are still being worked out, such as whether students must take the computer-based tests at school or can take them at home.

About a half-million students take the exams each year.

The state plan was generally well received by education groups, including teachers unions. But union leaders, who have been pushing for an MCAS moratorium for this year and beyond, said they will continue their lobbying efforts on Beacon Hill to cancel the exams.

“I still have hopes the MCAS will go away this year,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.

Union leaders say that MCAS testing is an unwelcome distraction, with teachers focused more on students’ social and emotional needs during the pandemic.

“We have to look at this year differently,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “There is no doubt that kids are not where they should be in the curriculum, but kids are learning new and creative things, including resiliency.”

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he disagreed with the decision to conduct MCAS testing this year. Instead, districts should be given the flexibility to administer the standardized test they believe will do the best job of measuring what their students know, he said.

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“We’ve been advocating for some time about less testing,” he said, noting many districts are already documenting learning gains and losses during the pandemic.

A number of national studies over the last 10 months have attempted to predict the amount of learning loss. Riley pointed to ongoing research by McKinsey & Co., a consulting group, that uncovered serious delays. According to the group, students nationwide this fall “started school about three months behind where we would expect them to be in mathematics. Students of color were about three to five months behind in learning; white students were about one to three months behind.”

The losses in reading were significantly less, a month-and-a-half behind historical averages.

Under federal law, states are required to test students annually in math and English in grades 3 through 8 and at least one grade level in high school. Last year, the Trump administration allowed states to waive the testing requirement, but signaled it wouldn’t do so this year. It is unclear whether President-elect Biden will grant states flexibility.

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, an education advocacy organization, said resuming MCAS testing was a good idea.

“We cannot address learning loss if we do not have data showing where students are falling behind,” she said in a statement. “Much like how parents would not take a child to a doctor who didn’t use a thermometer to determine how sick a child might be, we are also not willing to rely solely on the ‘best guesses’ of educators to determine what our kids will need to recover academically.”

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