With all Democratic control on Beacon Hill, teachers unions have launched a (renewed) push not just to eliminate the MCAS exam as a graduation requirement, but also to end the state’s ability to take over chronically underperforming districts. Under their favored legislation, it would be left up to the state’s many school districts to determine whether their students had achieved sufficient competence in math, English, and science to graduate.
And what of statewide educational standards? Well, a 26-member commission, with a dizzying array of membership requirements, would study alternative ways of assessing students and schools. By the end of August 2024 it would be charged with … filing a report.
Here’s what this legislation really boils down to: An effort to strip the state of its ability to ensure basic educational quality and accountability, while camouflaging that goal with the creation of a bureaucratic commission that will supposedly recommend alternative approaches. No wonder it has inspired supporters of MCAS to organize in its defense.
Although this bill goes by the name Thrive Act, it might better be labeled the False Guise Act. Why? Because one of the principal anti-MCAS arguments of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and its close (and financially dependent) ally Citizens for Public Schools has been rendered inoperative. As this page has reported, their claim that since its inception as a graduation requirement, the MCAS exam has been the sole factor keeping some 50,000 otherwise qualified students from graduating appears to vastly overstate the true number of students who fall into the category. The test required for graduation is pitched to a 10th-grade level; if students don’t pass as a sophomore, they get several more opportunities. According to 2015 to 2019 data compiled by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 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.
But though the supposed “facts” upon which MCAS opponents were basing much of their argument have changed, their anti-accountability objectives haven’t. They still want to eliminate the MCAS as a graduation requirement and to end the state’s ability to put failing districts in receivership, an important last-resort option to protect students in those districts.
And, of course, in MTA speak, the state’s highly successful education reform effort — which married big new infusions of state money with statewide curriculum standards and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — is “the 30-year experiment with test, punish and privatize.” The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, meanwhile, urges its members to help end “the harm caused by the high-stakes, punitive use of standardized tests, such as state takeovers and denying students high school diplomas.”
No matter that the sustained, bipartisan education-improvement commitment has made Massachusetts the recognized national leader in public education. And that takeovers — while certainly no panacea — are needed as an option in cases of chronically mismanaged or underperforming districts that have shown they are not adequately educating their students.
At this point, alert legislators should be viewing union claims about the MCAS with pronounced skepticism.
Meanwhile, lawmakers should take notice of a new coalition, Voices for Academic Equity, that is determined to play a pro-MCAS role in the education policy space. This group includes the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, four teachers groups — Teach Plus, Teach for America Massachusetts, The Teachers’ Lounge (a professional network of educators of color), and Educators for Excellence — Mass Insight Education, Democrats for Education Reform, Boston Schools Fund, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, the National Parents Union, and the Education Trust Massachusetts. It also includes Paul Toner, who was president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association from 2010 to 2014, during an era when the MTA was considered a productive partner in educational improvement.
This coalition understands the value the MCAS brings as a uniform statewide standard of assessment but wants to make the test less intimidating for students, even while rendering their MCAS results a more timely tool for helping individual students.
Among its suggestions: Offer parts of the exam in other languages, thereby reducing a possible hurdle for students who are English language learners. That certainly could be done with the math and science exams. Indeed, the state already offers the 10th-grade math test in Spanish and biology and introductory physics in Spanish and American Sign Language. According to the report, 31 states as well as the District of Columbia offer native language exams, usually in math or science, but sometimes also in social studies and reading and language arts.
The coalition also calls for involving more educators of color in developing the test to ensure that it doesn’t include culturally biased questions.
Its report says the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should identify areas where large numbers of students struggle and determine the best educational strategies to address those weaknesses. MCAS results should also be used to identify students who need tutoring or additional education time during the school year or who would benefit from summer education programs, it adds.
The coalition also plans an effort to educate policy makers and citizens about the value and uses of the MCAS. One of those, of course, is the need the MCAS fills for a uniform statewide assessment of student performance.
Ed Lambert, a former state representative and mayor of Fall River, who is now executive director of MBAE, points out that the MCAS has provided crucial data that have allowed educators to identify and address achievement gaps.
“You wouldn’t know that we have achievement gaps if it weren’t for the MCAS,” he said. “How can you attack inequity if you are not going to collect data?”
That’s a good question, and one lawmakers should consider as they listen to the usual suspects argue that the MCAS itself is somehow an instrument to oppress students of color rather than a tool to make sure they get the solid high school education they deserve.
As far as the MCAS is concerned, the smart approach is to improve both the test and its use — and not to eliminate it as a graduation requirement.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.