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Defending the MCAS from evidence-free attacks

The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s charges run afoul of the facts.

Brockton High School students are dismissed at the end of the school day on Sept. 22, 2023.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As they gear up for a renewed effort to get rid of it as a high school graduation requirement, opponents of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System rely on a rote and tired critique of the exam.

MCAS requires 10th-grade competence, and students have until their senior year to pass it. It’s important for two reasons: first, to make sure that a high school diploma really means something, and, second, as an accountability measure to ensure districts are educating their students to at least that minimal standard.

It’s the use of scores to assess the performance of schools that especially sticks in the craw of unions, of course, by casting an uncomfortable spotlight on districts that aren’t up to snuff. But they’ve attempted to construct an argument that the test is bad for students.


Critics insist that the exam is a failed and counterproductive approach to high school education, one that imparts no lasting value. It doesn’t measure real knowledge, they insist, but merely test-taking skills. Finally, they claim that all MCAS scores really reflect is a student’s zip code — that is, their socioeconomic status.

Although unsupported by anything that qualifies as objective, persuasive evidence, those assertions were all bandied about during a recent legislative hearing on the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s scheme to eliminate the MCAS as a graduation requirement — and to strip the state of its ability to intervene with chronically underperforming schools. But like other claims the MTA and its anti-MCAS allies make about the MCAS, these contentions don’t withstand close scrutiny.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, how the world could be expected to look if their claims were true. Test scores of students from low-income families would be unaffected by the quality of their teachers because, after all, such measures reflect nothing but zip codes. Also in this world, students with good MCAS scores would encounter a rude awakening when they got out in the real world, because their test-taking skills would be of no value in the workplace or anywhere else.


So what do we know about MCAS performance and student success in life? For starters, academic research conducted by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University shows that performing well on the MCAS correlates with significantly higher incomes at age 30.

“The higher the MCAS scores, the greater the future earnings,” Matt Hills, vice chairman of the board, noted in a data-filled presentation at a recent meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. That holds true across all the ethnic, educational, and socioeconomic groups researchers have studied. Higher MCAS scores also correlate with higher college attendance as well as with enrollment in the military.

The findings of a half-decade research partnership between the Annenberg Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also cast into sharp doubt assertions that higher MCAS scores merely or mostly reflect acquired test-taking ability rather than real student knowledge.

“Our work shows that there is good evidence that the MCAS is measuring the academic skills of students,” said John Papay, associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and director of the Annenberg Institute.

After all, better educational competence is a far more plausible explanation for higher wages more than a decade later than is better test-taking skills.

If MCAS scores simply reflected “teaching to the test, we wouldn’t see the same relationship with long-term outcomes that we do,” the Brown economist noted.


Brown University researchers also looked at populations of students who, having had similar scores on their eighth-grade MCAS, saw their performance diverge two years later, on the 10th-grade MCAS.

At the age of 30, those with significantly improved 10th-grade MCAS scores earned substantially more than those whose 10th-grade MCAS scores had stayed at the state’s average level of performance.

The economic payoff was substantial. Boosting one’s MCAS scores from the state average in the eighth grade to the 75th percentile in 10th grade meant an average earnings differential of 22 percent, or $10,903, by age 30.

Papay and his research team also took a longitudinal look at low-income students in high schools that served mostly economically disadvantaged pupils. That led them to conclude that “some schools do a much better job than others of improving students’ life outcomes.”

In other words, socioeconomic status is not destiny, and that for low-income students, attending a quality high school rather than an average or mediocre one “has important consequences for their life outcomes, for their earnings, for their educational attainments,” Papay said.

Sadly, the MTA isn’t particularly interested in preparing high school students for either the workplace or for college.

How do we know? Because last year, in his first appearance before the state school board as the new MTA chief, Max Page told board members as much, saying he and they “have a fundamental difference of views of what schools are for. “ He then derided the board for its concerns with college and career readiness.


“The focus on income, on college and career readiness, speaks to a system . . . tied to the capitalist class and its needs for profit,” Page declared.

Even given that anti-capitalist attitude, however, it’s lamentable that the MTA and its allies are trafficking in anti-MCAS assertions that simply don’t square with the research.

They have done it before, of course. Until the Globe editorial board called them on it, the MTA and Citizens for Public Schools, which it helps fund, were vastly exaggerating the number of otherwise qualified high school seniors who have been kept from receiving their high school diplomas merely because they had failed the MCAS.

The MTA has now started using the correct figure, though apparently without ever apologizing for having pumped a massive amount of anti-MCAS propaganda into the political atmosphere.

Still, despite being wrong on many fronts, neither the MTA or the CPS has backed away from their crusade to eliminate the exam as a graduation requirement — and to strip the state of its ability to intervene with chronically underperforming schools. That last goal is particularly important to the teachers unions, since those interventions sometimes result in the modification of union contracts.

Having had no luck inside the State House on either front, the MTA now says it will lead a ballot-question campaign to kill the graduation exam and disempower the state board of education.


Now, the teachers unions are important electoral allies for the state’s Democrats, who control the governorship as well as the Senate and the House. These, however, are myopic and self-interested union concerns. In this instance, policymakers and voters must prioritize what is good for students and schools.

That imperative means defending the MCAS as the important tool it is for promoting post-high school success.

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