The Massachusetts Teachers Association has collected more than 130,000 signatures — far more than legally required — in its quest to get a question on next year’s election ballot that would no longer make high school diplomas contingent on students passing MCAS exams.
The proposed ballot question would ask voters to eliminate the MCAS graduation requirement, established under the 1993 Education Reform Act and enacted a decade later, and instead would require students to complete coursework that is consistent with the state’s academic standards to receive their high school diplomas. The MCAS is based on those standards.
The overwhelming show of public support comes as union officials near next week’s deadline to submit scores of petitions signed by voters to local election officials so they can certify that the signers are registered to vote. The secretary of state’s office is requiring those who are seeking to place questions on next year’s ballot to gather 74,574 signatures of certified voters this fall.
The collection of the signatures represents a key milestone to get a question on a ballot, but other significant steps remain. The Legislature has the opportunity next year to enact laws based on the changes that ballot question organizers are seeking, while the attorney general also will need to vet the language of the ballot questions. Then ballot organizers need to collect an additional 12,429 signatures of certified voters.
“With over 130,000 signatures, the public’s voice is loud and clear: They stand with educators against high-stakes testing,” Max Page, the union’s president, said in a statement. “Our stance against an accountability system solely based on high-stakes testing resonates with the community, highlighting the need for change in how we evaluate student achievement.”
The teachers association has long been concerned that requiring students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in order to receive a high school diploma creates immense inequities in public schools, rewarding students who are good test takers, while unnecessarily punishing those who struggle with standardized tests, especially students with learning or physical disabilities or who are not fluent in English.
Currently, high school students must pass the MCAS in English, math, and science to earn a diploma. More than 700 high school students each year typically don’t receive a diploma because they didn’t pass the tests, according to state data, and instead received “certificates of attainment,” which are awarded to students who only satisfied local graduation requirements.
In a move that outraged many MCAS critics last year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education raised the passing scores on the high school MCAS exams under a plan that will be phased in over the next few years.
The change is expected to have a disproportionate impact on migrants who enroll in high schools. Such students only make up about 5 percent of 10th-grade MCAS test takers but comprise almost a third of those who never pass, according to a report issued Thursday by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
Supporters of the MCAS question plan to continue gathering signatures as part of a broader effort to build voter support for passing the ballot initiative. They have been fanning out at grocery stores, coffee shops, juice bars, school sporting events, and local businesses.
The effort, however, is encountering opposition from many groups with ties to the business community and the nonprofit world, who view the MCAS graduation requirement as a critical ingredient in ensuring the state has a well-educated and highly trained workforce.
“What we need to do is focus our efforts on making sure all students can meet that high bar,” said Edward Lambert, Jr., executive director for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, an advocacy organization. “When this requirement went into effect over 20 years ago there were a lot of naysayers who said there would be a whole group of students left behind but graduation rates went up.”