Massachusetts education leaders plan to vote Monday on a controversial proposal to raise the standardized state test scores needed for students to graduate high school, starting with this year’s incoming ninth graders.
The planned vote by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education comes two months after the board was initially expected to decide on the proposal by education Commissioner Jeff Riley and follows a public comment period that began in April.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, began in 1998. Since 2003, students have been required to attain certain scores on the exams to graduate. Students first take the tests — which now include math, science, and English language arts — in 10th grade and if they don’t pass, they’re given opportunities to attempt again in later grades.
Under Riley’s proposed changes, 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.” Students would also have to score at least 470 on a science, technology, or engineering MCAS test.
In raising the standards on the MCAS, board members said they aim to ensure students who receive a diploma meet the state’s expectations on a new version of the MCAS test and are prepared for college and career success. They also want to push schools to better support students who struggle to pass the MCAS, who are disproportionately from low-income households, students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.
But the proposal has seen fierce opposition, including a letter from nearly 100 state legislators worried about the potential change’s effect on student mental health.
“If the state’s goal is racial and social equity, this is the wrong way to go,” the letter reads.
To address concerns that the changes will lower graduation rates, particularly for high-needs students, the state’s proposed changes also alter the educational proficiency plan process, requiring schools to tutor students, share plans with parents, and update plans annually. The proposal encourages schools to include these students in early-college, early-career, and vocational programs.
The vote has been twice delayed, first when it was left off the agenda for the board’s June meeting and then when a scheduled July 25 meeting was canceled.
The opponents, which included state teachers’ unions, Boston Public Schools, and hundreds of individual writers, argued that the proposed changes would negatively affect high-needs students, incentivize test prep at the expense of other instruction, and increase pressure on teachers.
Instead, the commenters said, the state should prioritize alternative pathways to graduation, delay changing graduation requirements until more data is available, and increase student and family involvement in educational proficiency planning. Some called for either the MCAS graduation standard or the MCAS itself to be eliminated.
Commenters also opposed the proposed requirement that students who fail to meet the standards on their first attempt retake the MCAS in later years.
The four supporters of the proposal were one individual and the Massachusetts High Technology Council, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and Education Reform Now Advocacy. They argued higher standards would help students succeed later in life.
Monday’s agenda also features an additional proposal by board member Martin West to further raise the math and English score threshold of 500, the level the state considers to be “meeting expectations,” beginning with the class of 2031. Students who complete educational proficiency plans would still be able to graduate with scores of 470 and the science standard would be unchanged.
“The goal should be for all students to meet expectations on these 10th grade assessments,” West wrote in support of his amendment. “Because the minimum score for (graduation) will remain at the Commissioner’s proposed 470, this amendment will have the effect of potentially increasing the number of students who receive the benefit of targeted supplementary instruction through a proficiency plan. It should have little or no effect on graduation rates.”
The three organizations supporting the commissioner’s proposal also support West’s amendment.
The board is scheduled to meet from noon to 4 p.m. Monday in person at the education department’s Malden headquarters, 75 Pleasant St. The meeting will be recorded and livestreamed and includes a 30-minute public comment period.