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Should Massachusetts do away with MCAS as a graduation requirement?


Jamal Halawa

Somerville High School teacher, parent of three children

Jamal Halawa
Jamal HalawaHANDOUT

What is it we want a high school graduate to be able to do? Do we want critical thinkers who can solve problems and communicate with people from different walks of life? Or do we want young people who can pass a test?

As a Somerville High School teacher of English learners, I believe that problem solving, communication, persistence, and curiosity are all more important than being good at standardized tests. Policy makers in most states now agree. Only about 12 states have graduation tests in place now, down from a high of 27.


In Massachusetts, students have to pass MCAS tests in mathematics, English language arts, and science in order to graduate. Most pass on the first try, but not all. I oppose the requirement because it has a demoralizing impact on the English learners I teach, as well as on many students with disabilities, and because it is one more high-stakes use of a test that distorts teaching and learning in our schools.

Put yourself in my students’ place. You are 15 years old in a new country with new customs. You go to school and maybe you work. You try hard, but you are learning a new language. Maybe you feel out of place, or don’t feel too welcome.

Now, you are told you have to pass these tests. For the English Language Arts test, you may have to analyze a poem by T.S. Eliot and write at a high level in a language you barely understand. You take this test for three days. You fail. You feel stupid. You are put into a special class and take the test again. You fail, you feel stupid. The pressure is on. If you don’t pass you don’t graduate, no matter how well you do in your classes.


Students do need to be ready for college or a job when they graduate from high school. That’s why all school districts have course-passing requirements. Some students take longer to graduate to make up credits, but at least they have a viable path to success. Their future shouldn’t hang in the balance based on a do-or-die exam.


Joseph E. Esposito

Bedford resident; board member, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education

Joseph E. Esposito
Joseph E. EspositoHandout

It is no coincidence that since Massachusetts began implementing MCAS and using it as a graduation requirement the state has risen to number one in the nation in student achievement. Requiring students to demonstrate mastery of a common set of skills, competencies, and knowledge is essential to ensuring a minimum bar is set for student achievement and a high school diploma actually means something.

Before MCAS, each district’s bar was different — some were quite low — and expectations of student learning could be different even within a school building. The lack of a common standard for student achievement led to gross inequities in educational opportunities with the most vulnerable students often held back by low expectations. MCAS righted that wrong, setting equal expectations for all students, no matter their zip code.

The real challenge is that although MCAS was intended to be a floor that school systems would all meet and strive to exceed, it became a ceiling instead. In fact, a report commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and conducted by the Center for Assessment concluded that “a large proportion of the items on recent 10th-grade mathematics tests measure sixth, seventh, or eighth grade standards.” As a result, far too many students graduate unprepared for success in college and the workforce.


Rather than debating whether MCAS should remain a high school graduation requirement, Massachusetts must focus on raising the bar to reflect what students need to know in a rapidly-changing, knowledge-based economy. The state has taken steps in the right direction, developing and rolling out a next-generation MCAS for students in grades 3 through 8 that is intended to align closer to real world expectations. In spring 2019, the next-generation 10th grade MCAS tests in ELA and mathematics will be given for the first time. The state should seize this opportunity to set the bar higher so all students graduate prepared for success.

A common assessment is a legitimate requirement for high school graduation and an essential tool to ensure educational equity. Doing away with that requirement will hurt all students and surely hit those facing disadvantages the hardest. Instead, let’s continue on the path to making the test better.

This is an informal poll, not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.

Globe correspondent John Laidler solicited opinions for this exchange. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.