No one is more trusted on education issues than public school educators. Parents know educators care about their children as whole people — not just as scores on a test. We look to educators to help children excel academically. And we look to educators to help young people play, read, create, and wonder. Educators teach children to work collaboratively, build trusting and healthy relationships, access their passions for art and music, and develop as future citizens.
So let’s listen to what the state’s trusted educators are saying about the MCAS.
For 20 years, Massachusetts Teachers Association members, all public school educators from pre-K through higher education, have been sounding the alarm about the harm caused by the high-stakes MCAS. They maintain it is educational malpractice to judge students and schools with a one-time test score. They want to spend more time on authentic learning but are forced to waste weeks prepping for and proctoring standardized tests. They worry about the hundreds of students who miss the cutoff on one part of the MCAS and are denied a high school diploma. They have told us that the high-stakes testing regime is corroding an organic passion for learning. It makes them want to leave their calling and to tell the next generation to find a better-paying job where their professionalism will be more respected.
According to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more than 700 students per year — the number in a good-sized high school — disproportionately BIPOC, have disabilities, or for whom English is a second language, leave high school without a diploma, limiting their opportunities for the rest of their lives. Massachusetts, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana are among the few states still using a standardized test as a high-school graduation requirement.
Inappropriate uses of MCAS undermine the student experience in countless schools because it is the key measure state bureaucrats use to intervene or take over school districts, as has happened in Holyoke, Southbridge, and Lawrence. Fearful of this, threatened schools — always where working-class students of color live — devote more time and resources to boosting test scores. Educators call this practice “drill and kill.” What gets killed? History. Social studies. Art. Music. Gym. Civics. Recess. Project-based learning. Tending to social and emotional skills, while in the midst of the current youth mental health crisis.
Using DESE’s own information, the greatest gains in learning, across all demographic groups, happened when new funds were flowing into public schools after 1993, and when the MCAS was only a diagnostic test and wasn’t being used to deny diplomas or threaten the democratic control of schools. When the state doubled down on testing — with the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 — and coasted on its fiscal investments, the gaps on state and national tests widened again.
Money matters in education — which is why MTA members fought so hard to secure passage of the Student Opportunity Act in 2019, which will bring an additional $1.5 billion a year into Massachusetts public schools by the 2026-2027 school year, especially benefiting the lowest-income districts. And outside of schools, students and their families need economic stability, which is why MTA members and allies have won universal sick leave, paid family medical leave, a higher minimum wage, and are now fighting to win debt-free public higher education. When we as a Commonwealth fight economic insecurity, and when we invest in educators and all the supports students need, we make it possible for students to learn to their highest abilities.
All of this is why we agree with former secretary of education Paul Reville, who said in 2021, “Now generally, psychometricians agree that it’s improper — inappropriate — to attach high stakes to any single test.”
If policy makers want an accurate assessment of a child’s skills and knowledge, they are far better off asking a teacher who has taught a child for an entire year, graded homework, observed class participation, evaluated final exams, and used all those tools to assess what the student has mastered and in what areas more attention is needed. Or they can rely on data from a standardized test with a narrow focus and which has been roundly criticized as in need of an overhaul.
For parents and educators, this is obvious. If the state wants more authentic learning, it should allow educators to do more real teaching and put less emphasis on testing. It should provide what educators are eager for, and students need, such as more school counselors and mental health supports, especially in the wake of a hopefully once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that has exacerbated a growing mental health crisis among students.
Educators also need additional tools to create authentic academic and school assessments, such as those being used in the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment and around the country. Real-world collaborative projects in place of bubble tests; surveys of students and parents on school culture and curricular offerings in place of MCAS-based school rankings. We need to understand what schools are really doing and what students have learned, not how well they can take tests.
MCAS scores mislead the public into believing they are seeing an accurate measure of student and school achievement. But it is not the “comprehensive” (that’s the “C” in MCAS) assessment of students or schools that the Education Reform Act of 1993 demanded. MCAS is not the best tool to measure what it purports to measure and certainly does not assess much of what matters to parents and students in a school. And yet it plays an outsized role in shaping what students experience every day. The Commonwealth sends more than $30 million annually to a for-profit company to administer the MCAS, even though the test does a far better job identifying a students’ socioeconomic status than predicting academic success.
Educators, parents, students, and community allies have won big gains for school funding and greater economic equality. We need to reclaim real teaching from destructive high-stakes testing so that every child has the opportunity to receive the great public education they deserve.
To create schools that will allow all students to thrive, the MCAS as a graduation requirement has to go.
Just ask an educator.
Max Page is president and Deb McCarthy is vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.