“What do the personifications of Nature, Time, and Age mainly imply about human life?
A. We are always afraid of unpredictable forces.
B. Positive forces shape the world to our advantage.
C. Our willpower can defeat seemingly invincible forces.
D. We are at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves.”
This is an actual question from the 2023 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS: a test that determines if students in our state can graduate from high school. It is asking test-takers about the central themes of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” From my perspective as an English teacher, I would much rather have students experience and enjoy poetry; discuss it, and play with it without fear that getting it “wrong” could cost them so dearly.
I also want my students to send polite and typo-free emails, read and understand contracts they are signing, and write decent thank-you notes. I want my students to do those things way more than I want them to correctly analyze the themes of ancient poetry. Yet, if I spend too much time on those life skills, rather than the things my students will encounter on this test, I may have failed them as their English teacher.
Massachusetts has been a leader in quality public education for so long, and there is no reason we can’t do something now to continue that role: eliminate the MCAS graduation requirement.
This is not a call for an end to MCAS, which was first developed in 1993 to improve school accountability, but rather an end to the use of a passing score as a graduation requirement, a practice that did not start until 2003. In the runup to and early years of No Child Left Behind, 26 states required a passing standardized test score to earn a high school diploma. Today, Massachusetts is one of only eight states hanging onto the requirement.
If the graduation requirement were abolished, MCAS testing would still be an important part of our schools. Educators would still use the resulting data — as they should, since data from testing students regularly is invaluable for identifying blind spots and tuning teaching practices. Our state would continue rewarding excellence on the exam through the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program, which provides assistance of around 10 percent of tuition to top-MCAS performers to attend Massachusetts state colleges and universities. This is a wonderful way to recognize high-achieving students, as well as to keep them in state.
But what if the MCAS was administered with only those goals in mind, instead of acting as a barrier to graduation that disproportionately affects low-income and minority students? What would change about secondary schools right away?
First and foremost, student anxiety around high-stakes testing would diminish. With an ongoing mental health crisis among American adolescents, taking this off their plates could be a blessing that opens the doors to better attendance and enhanced conceptual understanding, both of which rely on lowered anxiety.
Next, precious resources such as blocks of time, classrooms, and teaching staff would become available, because additional coursework would no longer be required when students did not pass. Currently, students are required to take additional classes if they fail to show appropriate mastery on their last MCAS.
Educators would be free to expand their curricula beyond the core standards without fear that they were neglecting MCAS content, so students could spend time on those business emails, contracts, and thank-you notes without worrying that inadequate attention was paid to tested skills and test-taking strategies.
Looking toward the future, common sense reforms to our graduation requirements would be possible, which could better prepare our students for college and careers. Ending the artificial elevation of a narrow set of skills in English, math, and some sciences would mean more freedom to teach the skills people know are valuable in both academic and non-academic contexts: Students could learn more that they could use in the real world. This would help build respect for educators, respect that is tarnished when we pretend that poetic analysis is more important than understanding your credit score.
The students I’m teaching now will be the ones caring for us when we are too old to care for ourselves. I want them to know what is important in life, to hold no animosity toward me or my generation because of ludicrous hoops we made them jump through, to have compassion for me, to have curiosity about what ails me and the drive to find some remedy, to approach my finances with me with common sense, and to be able to communicate with me in plain language about what is going on in the world, because by then, I will need their help to understand it.
None of that is tested on the MCAS. But maybe if they can’t do those things, they will tell me the major themes of Ovid’s poetry.
The answer was D, by the way. “We are at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves.”
That is true when it comes to aging and the passage of time, but that’s not a message I want my students to take away from their education.
Dani Charbonneau is a high school English teacher and Alternative Program Coordinator at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, and is also the 2023 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.