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Mass. legislators urge state education leaders not to raise MCAS graduation requirements

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Nearly 100 Massachusetts lawmakers sent a letter to state education leaders on Tuesday opposing raising state standardized test scores needed for students to graduate high school.

The letter highlights concerns from legislators about consequences they believe a state proposal made in April to raise the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, graduation requirements could have, particularly among students who have been “disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members said in April they want to ensure students who receive a diploma meet the state’s expectations on a new version of the MCAS test. They also want to push schools to better support those students who struggle to pass the MCAS who disproportionately are from low-income households, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

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“If the state’s goal is racial and social equity, this is the wrong way to go,” notes the letter addressed to Education Commissioner Riley and members of the board.

The letter, signed by 97 bipartisan lawmakers and addressed to state Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and board of education members, added that tests like the MCAS “focus learning on a narrow range of skills, to the detriment of skills needed in the wider world such as problem solving, innovation, communication, social skills, emotional resilience, appreciation of diversity, and teamwork skills.”

Under the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s proposed changes, starting with this year’s eighth graders, students would have to attain a scaled score of 486 on each the English and math MCAS tests; currently, the thresholds are 472 for English and 486 for math.

Students who complete an “educational proficiency plan,” which includes students’ coursework, grades, and teacher input, would be allowed to graduate with a lower score, of at least 470 on both English and math, up from the current 455 and 469, respectively. The state considers scores from 440 to 469 as “not meeting expectations,” while scores from 470 to 499 are “partially meeting expectations.”

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“We are deeply concerned about the impact on students’ mental health because of the pandemic,” the letter said. “This proposal would add even more stress to high school students’ already stressful lives. Many students who fail high-stakes tests suffer from negative emotional consequences, including reduced self-confidence. Even those who pass face weeks of stress during test prep and testing.”

During the pandemic, math scores dropped 16 percentage points in grades 3-8 and 7 percentage points for Grade 10 since the standardized tests were last administered in the spring of 2019, according to results released last September. Achievement on the English/Language Arts exams was mixed. Scores decreased 6 percentage points in grades 3-8 compared to 2019, but they increased 3 points in Grade 10.

The state’s proposed changes would also address concerns from education advocates about how raising the standards could lead to lower graduation rates by making changes to the educational proficiency plan process. This would include requiring schools to tutor students, share the plans with parents, and encourage schools to include these students in early-college, early-career, and vocational programs.

But state Senator Jo Comerford, one of the lawmakers who initiated the letter, said there is widespread concerns about the proposal among her colleagues and she felt “a responsibility, as an elected official, to speak to the appointed board members on behalf of the many constituents who have expressed concerns about the unfairness and destructive educational impact of the high-stakes MCAS.”

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State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members are expected to discuss the issue and take a final vote next Tuesday.

As of publication, DESE did not respond to the letter but a spokesperson for the department said the state board members will be discussing the issue at the next meeting.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.

The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.