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opinion | Richard Freeland and John Davis

MCAS standards aren’t good enough for today’s world

Globe file 2005/Boston Globe

Massachusetts is facing an education decision of vital importance to our fellow business and higher-education leaders. This month, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will determine whether to raise standards for our schoolchildren to help them keep pace with the rapidly changing economy, or continue with a measurement system developed 20 years ago. The choice should be obvious.

In 1993, our state adopted an ambitious set of standards for our K-12 system as part of a comprehensive education reform effort. To measure those standards, the state instituted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. At that time, the benchmarks were considered rigorous — they set a higher bar than what our schools were used to. But what was considered challenging 20 years ago is not good enough in today’s highly competitive and increasingly globalized business environment.


The credentials required to succeed in the global economy are rising fast, and our education system isn’t keeping pace. We need young people who are more highly educated, with more sophisticated skills. Nearly three quarters of the 3.9 million jobs in Massachusetts will require postsecondary education by 2020, and 200,000 may go unfilled due to projected gaps in the educational attainment of our young people. Seven out of every ten employers in our state say they have trouble finding qualified applicants. We can and must do better.

When Massachusetts adopted the MCAS nearly 20 years ago, students struggled to clear the bar. Today, proficiency rates are at 90. Contrast that with data on the preparation of students when they enter college or the workforce and the expectations gap becomes clear: 37 percent of our high school graduates (all of whom presumably passed the MCAS exam) need to take remedial courses when they arrive in one of our public colleges. That number jumps to 65 percent in our community colleges.


These deficiencies amount to an economic death sentence for our students. Despite our best efforts to support them, the vast majority of students in Massachusetts colleges and universities who place into remediation will drop out of college before earning a degree. That’s why some refer to remediation as the Bermuda Triangle of higher education. And without a degree or credential, students’ chances of getting well-paying jobs that support a family and allow for upward mobility are infinitesimal.

Several years ago, Massachusetts worked with other states to develop and pilot a more ambitious set of education standards and assessments in the critical fields of mathematics and English-language arts. The PARCC exams (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) were implemented in half of Massachusetts schools last year as a pilot, while other schools still used the MCAS. As the name implies, the PARCC exams were developed to measure the skills students need to be ready for success at the postsecondary level. Faculty from Massachusetts colleges were involved in building the exams and determining the passing scores necessary to be considered “college ready.” Results from last year’s pilot demonstrated that students found the PARCC exams significantly more difficult than the MCAS tests.

State officials must now decide whether to move ahead with the new PARCC assessments or keep some version of the MCAS.

Educators and policy makers in Massachusetts are fond of citing data that show that our students have been outperforming those in other states. It’s good to be proud of our past accomplishments. But we will be making a grave mistake if we grow complacent and fail to push ourselves to the next level.


Ask any employer whether the metrics they use today are the same as those from two decades ago and the answer will be the same: Not if we want to stay in business. Our success hinges on our ability to adapt to the changing marketplace and to adopt ever higher expectations. Our customers and shareholders demand it.

The same is true of our schools.

Richard Freeland served as the state commissioner of higher education from 2008 to 2015 and was president of Northeastern University from 1996 to 2006. John Davis served as chairman and CEO of the American Saw and Manufacturing Company of East Longmeadow, and previously served as the company’s President.