State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, facing a mounting backlash over MCAS testing this spring, proposed a number of changes on Thursday, including one radical measure that would exempt this year’s 11th-graders from passing the tests in order to graduate from high school. .
The state has never let an entire class of students receive their diplomas without passing the MCAS since the exams became a high school graduation requirement in 2003. But Riley indicated that such a move was necessary due to the disruptions the pandemic has caused to learning and the MCAS testing schedule.
This year’s 11th-graders, for instance, were supposed to take most of the MCAS exams last year, but the tests were canceled because of the closure of school buildings at the start of the pandemic. The MCAS testing exemption will require approval by the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is slated to meet this month.
Nathan O’Connell, a junior at Somerville High School, said waiving the test requirement would reduce the stress many students have experienced since the pandemic upended learning.
“There are people in my grade that are already not doing too well in school, and I feel like it would just put … a lot more stress on them if they had to carry this burden going into their last year in high school,” O’Connell, 16, said in an interview.
The other changes Riley proposed include allowing students in grades 3-8 to take the MCAS exams at home remotely and to extend the MCAS testing schedules for all grade levels to June 11. In a statement, state education officials said MCAS testing will provide “critical insight into academic losses that must be addressed,” and identify which students have struggled amid the pandemic.
. “Administering the MCAS will make it possible to reliably assess students’ progress in relation to curriculum standards,” the statement said.
Riley’s proposal comes as teachers unions, superintendents, school committees, and a growing number of Beacon Hill lawmakers are pressuring him to entirely scrap all the MCAS exams this year or postpone them to the fall.
On Thursday, 29 state senators submitted a letter urging Riley to delay MCAS testing until the fall. The senators argued that testing this spring will waste money and learning time.
Many local teachers and superintendents say they have been monitoring the progress of student learning throughout the year and are keenly aware what material is not being covered and where students are struggling with their classes. They also note the MCAS results will provide little value to them, given they won’t receive the data until the fall.
The timing of the MCAS this spring is also causing significant headaches for local schools. Districts across the state are in the midst of resuming full-time in-person learning. Districts are under a state deadline to fully reopen elementary schools by April 5, although a few dozen districts have received waivers, and middle schools by April 28. A date for high schools has not been set yet.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said she was pleased the commissioner was finally addressing some of the concerns being raised about MCAS, but added he needs to do more.
“Clearly the commissioner is feeling the heat,” Najimy said in an interview. “Everyone in the education world thinks the MCAS is a waste of time.”
She said allowing younger students to take the MCAS at home was “absurd,” noting that many households in urban and rural areas have unreliable broadband or no Internet service at all. She urged the commissioner to file for a waiver from federal rules that are requiring states to continue with standardized testing this spring.
Under federal law, states are required to test students annually in math and English in grades 3 through 8 and in one grade level in high school. Additionally, testing in science is required once in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said the state should eliminate the MCAS for this school year, given the disruptions the pandemic has caused in education and the ongoing risk of infection.
She noted that on Thursday state officials had announced the highest COVID-19 case count of the academic year, with 801 students infected and 244 cases among school staff.
“I think, certainly, in a pandemic, we should be waiving something that many people don’t think is valuable under any circumstances,” Kontos said in an interview. “I don’t think an MCAS test gives you a real reflection of a child’s learning experiences.”
Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, voiced frustration over Riley’s proposal.
“The Baker administration’s decision to water down graduation requirements for the Class of 2022 means their diplomas might as well have a ‘pandemic’ stamp on them,” she said in a statement. “Rather than keeping a sharp focus on preparing the Class of 2022 academically and getting them ready for college or career success, the decision today is telling these high school juniors that we do not believe in them.”
Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday backed Riley’s handling the MCAS testing issues.
“I think the commissioner’s making what I would describe as a tiered approach to dealing generally with MCAS and with assessments overall,” he said.
Riley’s proposal represents the latest pivot the commissioner has made to modify the MCAS and other state standardized tests during the pandemic. With state board approval, he previously exempted graduating seniors this year and last year from the MCAS testing requirement who had not yet passed the exams.
The commissioner has also shortened the length of the MCAS exams for this spring and extended the testing window for the ACCESS testing for English language proficiency from February until May 20.
Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.