For years in Massachusetts, opponents of the state’s graduation exam have cast the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System as a daunting hurdle to high school students. Requiring students to display a 10th-grade level of competence in English, math, and a branch of science to graduate from high school has been portrayed as a draconian demand, an exercise in “high-stakes” educational excess that makes their high school years both a trial and tribulation.
That line of attack is a huge exaggeration, as Matt Hills, vice chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, demonstrated in a fact-filled presentation to the board on Tuesday. The data Hills presented show that, in aggregate, of the class of 2019 students (the last pre-pandemic class) who passed the MCAS, more than 90 percent did so on their first try, in their sophomore year. Although there was some variation among ethnic and socioeconomics cohorts when it came to first-time MCAS success, of the students who passed the MCAS, at least 79 percent of Black, Hispanic, white, Asian, and economically disadvantaged students earned their MCAS competency determination on their first attempt. More than 90 percent of students in those groups, plus students with individual education plans, passed after their second or third attempt, which usually take place during their junior year. After a fourth attempt, English language learners were also above 90 percent. So despite the regular claims that MCAS passage rates reflect little more than one’s socioeconomic status, that really isn’t the case.
But that data, an MCAS skeptic might say, is about students who pass the MCAS. What about all those who don’t? After all, didn’t MTA President Max Page and Vice President Deb McCarthy write in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in March that “the high-stakes MCAS, which devours weeks of the school year — and which has narrowed school curricula — has sent over 50,000 students out into the world without a high school diploma.”
Yes, they did write that. But as the Globe editorial board has already reported, that is simply not so. There, a few more facts, based on a five-year — 2015 to 2019 — slice of data Hills developed, tell the true story.
For starters, 96 percent of the state’s 70,000 high school seniors cleared the MCAS threshold by the time of graduation. Of the students who didn’t, approximately three-quarters also failed to complete their district’s graduation requirements. That means that even if they had passed the MCAS, they wouldn’t have been awarded a diploma. Only 1 percent of seniors, or about 700 students each year, completed the local district requirements but failed to pass the MCAS.
Now, that’s not to say that policy makers shouldn’t be concerned about those 700 students. But they just as obviously shouldn’t set statewide education policy based on 1 percent of each year’s senior class.
But even though the facts have given the lie to many of the anti-MCAS arguments, the MTA has nevertheless launched a ballot-question drive aimed at eliminating the exam as a graduation requirement. So far, the union hasn’t proposed any kind of detailed, workable, or affordable alternative method of uniform assessment. Instead, the MTA and allies like Citizens for Public Schools, which the MTA helps fund, have stressed that only eight other states have a core-subject graduation exam like the MCAS.
That’s true — but that fact only tells half the story. At Tuesday’s board meeting, Hills noted that, unlike Massachusetts, almost every other state mandates a comprehensive series of courses over four years of high school that students must complete to graduate. That’s not the case in the Commonwealth, which has a strong traditional of local control. Instead, the state merely requires that students demonstrate competence in English, math, and a branch of science by achieving a passing score on the MCAS. That means that eliminating the test as a graduation requirement would leave the state without any uniform system of assessing student achievement and functionally without any real standard of expected statewide learning.
Other eye-catching information from Hills’s presentation included this: In 2019, 48.3 percent of districts had no seniors — that is, zero — who had completed their local requirements but failed to pass the MCAS. Another 21 percent of districts had only one such student. That means that in almost 70 percent of districts, the MCAS had a negligible negative effect on student graduation. Over 80 percent had three or fewer such students.
Even in the 15 districts with the most students failing the MCAS, almost three-quarters of those students had also failed to meet district requirements for graduation.
There have been some claims that a failure to pass the MCAS causes students to leave school. But of senior-year dropouts from 2015 to 2019, at least three-fifths and usually two-thirds or more had already passed the MCAS. So the graduation exam really isn’t a big dropout driver.
The data Hills and the DESE staff put together demonstrate just how factually flimsy the anti-MCAS offensive really is. But in a larger sense, that valuable information also suggests an alternative approach. The state is taking in at least $1.3 billion extra each year as a result of the higher tax rate on annual incomes in excess of $1 million. One use for that money should be to provide more help for students having trouble achieving educational competence on the MCAS.
What about summer programs with learning marbled in? What about longer school days or years? How about more one-on-one tutoring sessions during or after regular school hours? And a dropout-prevention effort targeted at vulnerable high school seniors?
So far, we’ve seen relatively little of that kind of creative energy.
The way forward is obviously not to nix the state’s graduation requirement but rather to use some of the new resources in a smart way to help those students who are struggling with educational challenges.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.