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School superintendents call for suspending MCAS this year in opposition to federal edict

Classrooms are being reconfigures to allow for social distancing at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston, MA on August 21, 2020.
Classrooms are being reconfigures to allow for social distancing at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Boston, MA on August 21, 2020.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

As public school systems statewide rush to meet new reopening deadlines, an association representing superintendents is urging the state to cancel MCAS and language proficiency testing this year, arguing that the spring exams threaten to steal “valuable time away from efforts toward a healthy return.”

The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents described its opposition to holding the standardized tests in a four-page document released Friday. The group has the support of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“With the limited time we have, do we want to spend it on testing kids for MCAS?” asked Thomas Scott, the association’s executive director. “The timing of this is not appropriate.”

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The group wants the state to seek a federal waiver to forgo the testing and let school districts use assessment tools they’ve designed independently to determine how students have fared since the COVID-19 pandemic closed classrooms last March.

“We can assess learning loss through our own evaluations,” said Jim Marini, the interim superintendent for the Public Schools of Brookline.

On March 5, state education officials announced plans to postpone testing, which had been scheduled to begin in April. Schools can now administer MCAS tests to grades 3-5 between May 10 and June 11. Dates have been set for some MCAS tests for upper grades, but the complete schedule hasn’t been formalized.

About a half-million Massachusetts students annually take the exams, which were canceled last year due to the pandemic.

In February, the Biden administration said that it will not allow states to skip federally required standardized testing, but will allow flexibility to delay testing or allow students to take the tests online. States may also apply to be exempted from certain accountability measures tied to the results. Test results would not be used to measure progress toward long-term goals, for example, and it would not be used to identify struggling schools.

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President Biden has been asked to reverse course. On Tuesday, Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts joined five other Congressional colleagues in signing a letter that seeks a national waiver.

“While we appreciate the position of those who support administering standardized tests this spring, we believe that the harms will outweigh the benefits,” the letter said.

And a bill pending at the State House would cancel MCAS testing this year.

Massachusetts elementary students are scheduled to return to school full time by April 5 and middle-schoolers by April 28.

On Saturday, state education officials pointed to the federal directives for holding standardized tests and a January memo from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley. In the memo, Riley said MCAS testing will give educators and families “critical insight into academic losses that need to be addressed.”

He also outlined testing modifications, which stipulate that the state will not call out districts as underperforming based on this year’s scores.

“The MCAS test is a crucial diagnostic tool to promote student success and educational equity and we remain committed to administering the assessment this spring, while recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility,” Riley wrote.

Brian Gilmore, a Milton Town Meeting member who serves on the board for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, supports administering MCAS tests.

In an interview for the Globe’s feature, The Argument, Gilmore said the test results will provide data for understanding “learning loss.” and guide parents.

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“MCAS can help answer questions they have about what supports their child might need to recover from so much lost learning time and make them more effective advocates for what support their child might need,” he said.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement that it isn’t fair to administer the exams and the results won’t accurately reveal how remote learning has impacted students.

“The MCAS is not designed or suited to serve as a diagnostic assessment and is not likely to provide any meaningful data about learning progress,” she said. “Testing our students this spring — right when many children are returning to the classroom for the first time in a year — will take precious time and attention away from teaching.”

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda said students are already stressed, and shouldn’t have to worry about standardized testing.

“That makes no sense to me at all,” she said.

Matt Malone, a former state education commissioner who now leads the Fall River Public Schools, said students should get a reprieve.

“Bringing children back and then focusing on assessing them with a standard measure is simply tone deaf to the reality we, in the field, have led through for the past year,” he said in an e-mail.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has long opposed high-stakes testing, said the organization and other groups are spreading information about how families can opt out of MCAS testing.

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“Now is not the year for MCAS,” she said. “We have to take all the resources that we have available and the rest of the time that we have available and really just invest in our students’ wellness.”



Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.