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In defense of MCAS

The test scores show us how far K-12 students have fallen behind in the pandemic, and just how important a metric the tests provide to address student needs.

The information gleaned from the MCAS test scores is especially important now, given the additional state and federal dollars coming to Massachusetts school districts to target the disruption in learning caused by the pandemic.Adobestock/clsdesign - stock.adobe.com

It was practically a foregone conclusion: The loss of in-person classroom instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic would result in significant setbacks in K-12 students’ academic progress.

The scores from the latest MCAS tests — administered in May, after they were temporarily paused in 2020 — confirm that unfortunate reality. Test results fell dramatically “across the board,” according to the state’s education commissioner, Jeff Riley. The declines, which are also consistent with national trends, were “seen all over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including our wealthiest suburbs,” Riley told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at the board’s monthly meeting, when the results were announced.


But just as the scores are shedding light that could aid educators in addressing students’ challenges, longtime critics of standardized testing are doubling down on their opposition and calling on the state Legislature to eliminate or reform the MCAS. Why would the state shun a valuable and longstanding metric at a time when more, not less, data points are needed to diagnose the unique learning struggles Massachusetts students are still facing?

The information gleaned from the MCAS test scores is especially important now, given the additional state and federal dollars coming to school districts to target the unprecedented disruption in learning caused by the pandemic.

Documenting COVID-19 academic learning loss hasn’t been a matter of showing “if” it exists but “how much.” And the test scores, which state education authorities have said won’t be used this year to penalize schools and districts for low performance or to determine new school accountability ratings, are offering a first real measure of where the greatest gaps exist.

Compared with 2019 MCAS results, math scores dropped 16 percentage points for students in grades 3 to 8 statewide: the share of students who met or exceeded expectations went from 49 percent to 33 percent; for students in grade 10, the drop was 7 percentage points — to 52 percent from 59 percent. The decline in English language arts scores was less pronounced, and for Grade 10 they even showed a gain of 3 points statewide.


Boston, as a district, saw less dramatic drops than the state, but its 2019 scores were lower than the state average. In grades 3 to 8, only 20 percent of Boston students scored “meeting expectations” or higher in math, down 13 percentage points from 2019. In English, 31 percent of students in those grades met or exceeded expectations, reflecting a decline of 4 percentage points. As for grade 10, 38 percent of students achieved that score in math, down 9 percentage points from 2019, while 45 percent did so in English, an unchanged rate from 2019. As reported by the Globe’s James Vaznis, many individual schools reported much higher drops than the system-wide average.

A day before those MCAS results were announced, the state Legislature held a hearing for a few bills that reject standardized testing. One bill would eliminate the MCAS as a requirement for high school graduation and provide additional options for students to show they’ve met graduation standards. Another bill would study new methods to measure school and student performance. Yet another piece of legislation would eliminate MCAS entirely.

Critics of MCAS decry the tests’ unintended consequences on disadvantaged populations. “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,” state Senator Jo Comerford said at the hearing. Comerford has cosponsored An Act Expanding Opportunities to Demonstrate Academic Achievement. The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Merrie Najimy, said “the influence of the MCAS has allowed white supremacy to flourish in public schools, effectively alienating students who have diverse backgrounds and differentiated learning styles,” as reported by State House News Service.


No standardized test is perfect. But the MCAS is not the venom portrayed by its critics. The test has been serving its purpose of pointing out fault lines; it’s how we’ve learned about substantial achievement gaps across racial and ethnic lines since the tests were first administered, in the late 1990s. That information has helped officials address the ways that students of color are sometimes underserved by their schools.

This year, MCAS tests were administered solely as a diagnostic tool to assess what the negative impact of the pandemic has been on academic performance after a year of disruption and trials with remote learning — and, therefore, provide insight for districts into what corrective measures they should take to get students back on track. These test results shouldn’t be used as a political weapon, but seen for what they are: one powerful tool to measure progress and keep school leaders accountable.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.