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State education board approves controversial proposal raising MCAS graduation requirements

Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley during a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that voted on a controversial proposal to raise the standardized state test scores on the MCAS needed for students to graduate high school.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday approved a controversial proposal to raise the standardized state test scores needed for students to graduate high school, a move opponents worry will lead to fewer marginalized students earning a diploma.

The board approved the more stringent standards to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, voting 8 to 3, with student member Eric Plankey and board members Darlene Lombos and Mary Ann Stewart voting against.

“The hope and the expectation in any standards-based education system is that if you set reasonable standards and expectations, the school systems will make the adjustments needed to meet those expectations,” board member Matt Hills said in an interview. “We are setting very, very reasonable standards.”

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Since 2003, all graduating seniors have been required to attain certain MCAS scores. Students first take the tests — which now include math, science, and English language arts — in 10th grade and if they don’t pass, are given opportunities to attempt them again in later grades.

Under the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s changes, students, starting with this year’s incoming ninth-graders, must attain a scaled score of 486 on both the English and math MCAS tests; currently, the thresholds are 472for English and 486 for math. Then beginning with the class of 2031, the standards will increase again, and students will need a score of 500, the level the state considers to be “meeting expectations.”

During Monday’s meeting, educators opposed to raising the MCAS standards said the change will be an added stressor to many students still dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the negative effects it has had on their learning and social-emotional wellbeing.

“We have seen an alarming increase in the social and emotional needs of our students,” said Deb McCarthy, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “To consider the escalation of a testing regime during a time when our students have experienced so much loss and disconnection is not only harmful, it is purposeful negligence. Our students don’t need more testing time. They need more learning time.”

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Monday’s vote comes two months after the board was initially expected to decide on the proposal by education commissioner Jeffrey Riley. It also follows a public comment period that began in April, with the majority speaking in opposition of the changes over concerns they would negatively affect the performance of high-needs students, incentivize test prep at the expense of other instruction, and increase pressure on teachers — particularly amid greater learning gaps caused by the pandemic.

Last year’s MCAS scores, reported in September 2021, tumbled by large margins across the state. The exams were the first to be given to students in two years since 2019 after they were canceled in the spring of 2020. Education advocates worry the results from last spring’s tests will continue to show learning gaps, particularly among English learners, students from low-income households, and children of color, and said changing the standards should be delayed or put off altogether.

The proposal brought to the board did not incorporate any input taken during the public comment period, which garnered more than 200 responses, the vast majority opposed to the stricter standards.

Attendees watched the proceedings on Monday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The original proposal was changed after the board approved an amendment proposed by member Martin West to further increase standards in future years to the level the state considers to be “meeting expectations.”

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“Obviously, the board decided to go further than my proposal, and I work for the board so we’ll respect that,” Riley said. “For me, what was most important was I just wanted to put my oar in the water to say we need to take some time to assess what the pandemic has done for our kids. So we need to look at the data over the next several years, and see where our kids are and what we need to do to get them back to kind of prepandemic levels.”

Plankey raised concerns that the changes could force teachers to prioritize teaching for a test over more engaging enrichment activities that he said would “be better indicators of academic success than just a test score.”

“That’s a concern that could be reflected a lot on the local level. I think that’s the concern of a lot of students,” Plankey said.

Under the new standards, 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.” Students also would have to score at least 470 on a science, technology, or engineering MCAS test.

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The new standards also include changes to the educational proficiency plan process, including 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.

“By measuring what our students need and investing in a more supportive process, I think that the outcomes will be better for our kids,” said board member Tricia Canavan.

Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said he supports the state-increased standards, noting the current standards are “really a deception to parents and students in suggesting they’re ready for the future, when in fact, it’s actually at the 11th percentile of all students.”

“MCAS is not a perfect test and, of course, we can continue to try to assess other measures of students’ success, but having a grounding in English and math and science, that transcends certain career categories, is absolutely important for students to be able to succeed,” Lambert said. “If they can’t read and write upon graduation, if they can’t understand basic math concepts, then (there is) a whole ton of careers that they can’t participate in.”

Staff writer Christopher Huffaker contributed to this report.


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