For the first time since the MCAS became a graduation requirement in 2003, high school juniors will be exempt from having to pass the exam to receive their diploma.
The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously approved the waiver on Tuesday. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said the massive academic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic made it necessary to suspend the requirement.
If not for the pandemic, juniors would have taken their 10th grade math and English MCAS exams last year. But when the tests were canceled, it meant they would not have at least three chances to take the tests and, if needed, receive academic support before graduation.
“These students have not had any opportunities” to take the MCAS, said Robert Curtin, an associate commissioner in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They would never have enough opportunities to take the test as required by the time they’re up for graduation.”
State education leaders have faced pressure from local school officials and teachers’ unions to cancel this year’s MCAS exams or postpone them until the fall. Earlier this month, more than two dozen state senators urged Riley and Governor Charlie Baker to postpone the tests, saying that standardized testing will “waste money and learning time.”
For juniors, passing their English and math classes will count as “competency” for purposes of graduation. That’s a system that local teachers unions think should be permanently used for all high school students.
“That’s exactly how it should be — you pass the class, so there’s your competency,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts. “That’s how it was when I went to school.”
The state spends $33 million each year on developing the MCAS, Kontos said, and that doesn’t include how much school districts spend to administer it.
“MCAS is a waste of time and money,” she said.
But other education advocates said the tests yield important information that help school districts identify struggling students and help them improve. Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said schools should still administer the test and follow up on its results to ensure that students learn the information they need to succeed in life before leaving high school, even if it’s not an official graduation requirement.
“You’re doing a disservice to students if they don’t even take the test and are given a diploma that doesn’t mean the same as those received by students in prior years,” Lambert said.
Before the vote, board members said they didn’t feel the state had much choice but to waive the graduation requirement for this class. Many said they had broader thoughts on the general system of assessments that they wanted to share in future discussions.
“It’s the right solution given the circumstances,” said Paymon Rouhanifard. “There is a lot we can discuss by way of what are new and innovative assessments we should be taking into consideration.”
The board’s student representative member, Jasper Coughlin, a senior at Billerica Memorial High School, praised the decision.
“During this school year when it’s really easy for students to feel cold and there aren’t people at higher levels looking out for them, this is exactly the type of thing that shows students we’re caring about them,” he said.
The vote was taken as thousands of students return to in-person learning. As of April 14, about 650,000 students in Massachusetts public schools, collaboratives, and special education programs are attending some form of in-person learning — up from about 450,000 students three weeks earlier.
Massachusetts elementary schools were required to return to full-time, in-person learning earlier this month, with the exception of a few dozen districts that received waivers to return later. Middle schools are required to return full-time on April 28.
James Vaznis of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.