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Education advocates rail against MCAS, call for changes

Chelsea public school students learned online in February as they sat in the cafeteria at the Clark Avenue Middle School. On Tuesday, the state is expected to release results of MCAS exams that were doled out in the spring.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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One day prior to the release of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, statewide results, education advocates called on lawmakers to revamp the mandated exams, or scrap them altogether.

A slew of bills being considered propose changing how MCAS, the standardized test currently required for all public school students to graduate, affects students and schools. Some bills would allow alternate ways for students to demonstrate knowledge and skills. Others would scrap the state’s requirement that every high school student pass the 10th grade English and math tests to earn a diploma. One would eliminate the test completely.


The state is expected to release results of the exams, doled out in the spring, during the monthly Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting Tuesday. While state leaders said the exams will be used to measure how much learning loss has occurred during the pandemic among the state’s more than 900,000 public school students, and not be used to label campuses as low-performing, critics have repeatedly called for the tests to be suspended.

In an online hearing Monday before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, state lawmakers heard arguments for and against revising the MCAS, though the vast majority of speakers railed against the test.

The MCAS system is “rooted in white supremacy,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “MCAS scores mostly measure the impact of structural racism in the form of underfunding of public education, public health, and housing, food, and income insecurity — conditions that students bring to their learning environment.”

Multiple supporters lauded one bill that would allow students multiple pathways — in addition to the MCAS — to show they have mastered knowledge and skills. The bill, An Act Expanding Opportunities to Demonstrate Academic Achievement, was cosponsored by Senator Jo Comerford and Representative James Hawkins, Democrats of Northampton and Attleboro, respectively. It also would offer grants to communities developing their own districtwide assessments and prevent schools from being labeled by the state as “underperforming” if that school’s funding falls below the state’s determined bare minimum amount.


While federal law requires states to assess students in a standardized manner, it does not require them to use test scores for graduation eligibility; as of 2019, Massachusetts was one of only 11 states using standardized tests that way, said Comerford. She cited a study showing students with disabilities accounted for 16 percent of high school seniors but 75 percent of those not passing the MCAS graduation requirement.

“The Commonwealth is an outlier,” Comerford said. “I urge you with everything I have as a legislator, a community member, a mom, to bring an end to the punitive, rigid nature of high-stakes testing in the Commonwealth.”

Ryan Boyd, 22, said that as a Marlborough High School student on the autism spectrum, he struggled to pass the math portion of the MCAS and found test preparation and test taking extremely stressful. Despite working hard to pass the math MCAS, he was still two points shy by the time he ended his senior year in 2018. He didn’t receive his diploma then. (More recently, the school waived his MCAS requirement due to COVID; he received a diploma.)


“No child should ever go through the same experience as I went through,” Boyd said.

Critics of the MCAS said test scores measure less about student learning than about the opportunities students have at home, but MCAS performance often is construed as school quality metrics, perpetuating segregation and inequities. Critics said the high stakes nature of MCAS also tends to narrow the curriculum for disadvantaged students whose schools focus on test preparation. And they said the graduation requirement can be demoralizing for students who struggle, prompting many to drop out.

But supporters said the tests guarantee a baseline level of knowledge that schools must provide all public school students, offer a way to compare different school districts, and bring attention to racial and socioeconomic opportunity gaps.

“It is no coincidence that since Massachusetts began implementing MCAS and using it as a requirement for graduation, the state has risen to number one in the nation in student achievement,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, one of few supporters of MCAS at Monday’s hearing. “We should not fall victim to the false belief that not all students can succeed,” Lambert added. “Lowering expectations will further inequity.”

Several speakers, including education committee cochair Senator Jason Lewis, spoke in favor of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, an effort led by University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Jack Schneider that offers schools feedback through surveys of students, families, and teachers on quality metrics that the school community decides matter.


Lambert said the business alliance supports complementing MCAS tests scores with other metrics but opposes eliminating statewide assessments.

Over and over, critics said the current system punishes underfunded schools and rewards wealthier ones.

Roberto Jiménez Rivera, a Chelsea School Committee member, said MCAS is a waste of money, as the current system ranks school districts in roughly the same way that student demographics, race, and parental education levels would.

“I guess getting a supposedly colorblind measure of student achievement and district quality feels good,” Jiménez Rivera said, “when it confirms people’s biases that those Black and brown kids in Chelsea and Boston aren’t succeeding because they’re not good enough and not because we failed to properly resource our schools.”

Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, read aloud an anonymous teacher’s statement: “My school panicked about MCAS and my 10th grade English class became 100-percent MCAS prep. . . . Students aren’t learning from it. They are miserable and I am miserable.”

The Legislature’s education committee will report which of the MCAS bills will move forward in the legislative process by Feb. 2.

Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.