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The misleading arguments of MCAS foes

No, the MCAS exam alone hasn’t kept 50,000 seniors from graduating.

In August 2022, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted on a controversial proposal to raise the standardized state test scores (MCAS) needed for students to graduate high school.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

For years, it’s been the mantra of opponents of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam: Requiring students to pass a test set at a 10th-grade level in order to graduate high school is unconscionable and cruel. It establishes such a hard-to-clear bar that thousands of students who would otherwise graduate are left behind, we’ve been told time and again.

The test has been an important part of the successful three-decade effort to improve public education in Massachusetts. It ensures that high school graduates will have basic competence in English, math, and one of several fields of science. Students have several opportunities to take the test during their high school years; if they fail initially, they and their teachers know where more academic work is required. Tracking the results, meanwhile, helps the state hold districts accountable for habitually failing schools.


Still, if the MCAS exam really took such a large toll on seniors otherwise set to graduate, it would be a real cause for concern. But does it?

That claim has been a central part of the multifront battle the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in particular, is waging against the MCAS graduation requirement. Here’s what MTA President Max Page had to say in a December radio interview: “There are over 50,000 students who have failed to get a diploma, even though their teachers had said that they were ready to graduate with a diploma, but they didn’t pass one part of the MCAS test.”

An August letter to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education signed by some 96 lawmakers made a similar claim. In that letter, which opposed raising the future passing scores for the MCAS, those lawmakers wrote: “Since MCAS became a graduation requirement for the Class of 2003, more than 52,000 students have reached the end of 12th grade without passing the MCAS exams required for graduation. Students who are denied diplomas based on MCAS scores have effectively been given the status of high school dropouts, regardless of whether or not they have successfully fulfilled all other graduation requirements.”


Or consider this, from a State House News Service story, about what the leader of Citizens for Public Schools, an organization that historically has received substantial funding from the MTA and regularly echoes the union’s stances, said at a September 2021 legislative hearing: “Executive Director Lisa Guisbond told lawmakers that since 2003, more than 52,000 Massachusetts students have reached the end of their senior years without meeting MCAS graduation requirements.”

But the claim collapses on closer examination. According to 2015 to 2019 data compiled by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at the request of board of education Vice Chairman Matt Hills, of the high school seniors who didn’t pass the MCAS in those years, between 72 percent and 74 percent also failed to complete their local district’s graduation requirements.

That is, they wouldn’t have graduated even if they had passed the MCAS.

For 2019, the last pre-COVID year, 2,752 seniors statewide, or about 4 percent of the senior class, did not graduate. Of that group, 2,050, or 74 percent, hadn’t passed either the MCAS or met the local graduation requirements. Only 702 missed a diploma for want of passing the MCAS alone.

Nor does the notion that the MCAS exam is keeping large numbers of minority students from graduating, another frequent charge, withstand scrutiny. Overall, 92 percent of Black seniors graduated, as did 91 percent of Hispanic students, 82 percent of students with individualized education programs, and 78 percent of English-language learners.


Across all categories, a significantly higher percentage of those subgroups had both failed to pass the MCAS and failed to satisfy the local district requirements than had been denied a diploma based on the MCAS alone.

So what is the origin of the claim — or in other cases, the strong suggestion that stops just shy of a concrete assertion — that the MCAS had been singularly responsible for keeping 50,000 high school seniors from graduating?

Page said through a spokesperson that “the data was compiled by Citizens for Public Schools and Lisa Guisbond.”

In an e-mail, Guisbond offered this explanation: “We calculated that, from 2003 through 2019, there were 52,745 students who were enrolled as seniors but did not pass the MCAS on their last opportunity to do so before leaving high school. Some of these may have also not met other requirements.”

Now, wait a minute! Where has that crucial qualifier been when Page and the MTA and Citizens for Public Schools and other MCAS opponents have repeatedly cited 52,000 denied diplomas? As the recent five-year slice of DESE data above show, leaving it out obscures the fact that the large majority of seniors who don’t pass the MCAS haven’t met their local requirements either.


For her part, Guisbond said, via e-mail, “We did the best we could with the information we could find from DESE.”

Perhaps. Still, it’s unfortunate Guisbond and her group couldn’t have checked their conclusions with DESE. Or that Page, the MTA, and other MCAS opponents apparently didn’t do anything to ascertain the accuracy of figures that, however unlikely, seemed to bolster their argument.

The MCAS graduation requirement has been in effect since 2003, but the anti-MCAS arguments have taken on a particular intensity since 2010, when a new law authorized the state to use MCAS scores to identify, and intervene with, perennially underperforming schools. Those school-turnaround efforts sometimes override collective-bargaining agreements and occasionally mean laying off teachers deemed to be a poor fit for a particular school.

Now, the MTA is certainly entitled to advocate for its members’ self-interest. But by now, it’s pretty clear that policy makers and the public should be skeptical when union officials try to cloak their campaign against MCAS in the garb of what’s good for students. As to the MTA and its allied groups, if they want policy makers and the public to take them seriously, they need to be much more scrupulous about the claims they make.

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