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Should Massachusetts raise MCAS graduation requirements?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.


Ed Lambert

Executive Director, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education

Ed Lambert

Parents and students, as well as employers and the public, have the right to expect that a high school diploma means a student has gained the skills they need to have a successful future. To that end, the state maintains a minimum graduation standard, requiring that to earn a diploma, each student achieve a passing score on the grade 10 MCAS in both English Language Arts and Math, and on one of the high school science tests.

Unfortunately, the current passing score to meet that standard has been set far too low, evidenced by the fact that so many students who “pass” the test and receive a diploma are not ready for college and the workforce. Brown University research that examined 10th grade MCAS scores and future earnings shows “MCAS scores reflect academic skills that pay off in the labor market,” and “students scoring near the (current) passing cutoff do not fare well and do not appear to be college- or career-ready, on average.”

That is why I support increasing the MCAS graduation standard, as proposed by the state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. We must raise the passing score to better align it with real world expectations and to have it act as a better indicator of readiness for future success. In fact, the bar should be set even higher than the commissioner’s proposal, which continues to allow students only “partially meeting expectations” to meet the state’s graduation standards.


The Brown study found that with the introduction of the MCAS graduation requirement, “educational attainments have increased over time, particularly for low-income students,” and that “many fewer students are failing the examinations on their first attempt.” In other words, when the bar was raised, students and educators rose to the challenge. With the right educational supports, students will meet the higher standard.


Handing out meaningless diplomas does not serve the interest of students and, worse, promotes inequities. A high school diploma should signal that a student has attained the academic skills and knowledge needed for success in college or other post-secondary programs, or to secure a job that pays a family sustaining wage. A diploma not based on high standards and one’s readiness for the future is dishonest and misleading.


Lisa Guisbond

Executive Director, Citizens for Public Schools, Brookline resident

Lisa GuisbondJames Doyle

It’s no secret that many students continue to deal with pandemic-induced trauma, layered on systemic racism and inequity. Yet state leaders have chosen this moment to launch a tone-deaf proposal to make it harder to graduate high school.

Raising MCAS passing scores would double down on a failed approach. It would intensify, not reverse, negative consequences of our 24-year MCAS experiment. The primary victims will be students who already suffer, especially English learners and students with disabilities.

For more than a decade (2007-2019), more than two-thirds of students who stay in school until 12th grade and do not pass the MCAS tests required for a high school diploma have been students with disabilities or English learners, according to my group’s review of state data. Raising the passing score will make things worse for a group of students who, due to lack of English proficiency, shouldn’t be required to take the MCAS in English anyhow.

The graduation test was always a bad idea. MCAS doesn’t measure things that matter in college, career, and life, such as analysis, reasoning, collaboration, and civic participation. Putting undue weight on a narrow set of test-based skills forces teachers to de-emphasize or even ignore everything else because they don’t “count,” including mental health.


The test actually creates stress, anxiety, and disengagement. My son wrote so many practice MCAS essays that he could have written one in his sleep. But the focus on test prep was deadening and squeezed out time for engaging aspects of writing.

Our analysis of National Assessment of Education Progress test results from 2003 to 2019 show that MCAS-driven schooling has not significantly closed reading and math gaps by race or income. Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members have had their views of education reduced to a thin gruel of test scores in three subjects.

More and more, teachers, students and parents are fed up with test score obsession. A fall 2021 MassINC poll of parents found only 20 percent rely on MCAS results to judge student learning. Parents said teacher feedback and grades were more helpful.

Massachusetts is among about 11 states still handcuffed to a graduation test. Let’s take off the cuffs, not tighten them.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.

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