One would think any state that has enjoyed the public policy success Massachusetts has with education reform would stick to its time-tested formula. But this year, the Senate budget underfunds the MCAS, the exam that tests Bay State students' subject matter mastery.
Governor Charlie Baker has asked for $32.1 million for preparation for the 2019 school year MCAS. The budget the House passed last month included that $32.1 million. The Senate, however, is looking at $27.1 million in the budget it is debating this week. A cut that large would have serious effects on the MCAS program.
Some object to the level of testing in the schools, but the state can't substantially reduce its testing programwithout running afoul of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. So what would the state do to accommodate the cut? One option would be to replace open-ended test questions, designed to assess critical thinking, with more multiple-choice queries. Testing opponents surely wouldn't want to push the MCAS away from queries that require demonstrations of thought and reasoning in favor of more multiple-choice queries. Or it could reuse old questions rather than generating new ones. But that would mean not releasing the test questions and answers publicly, something that is valuable to districts and schools trying to align curriculum and teaching with the learning the state expects. The state could also cut back on the administrative support and guidance it offers to help districts give the test. But that, too, would be a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach.
The options, then, are not very palatable. After the Globe asked her office for an explanation of the Senate's lower funding level, Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka issued a statement saying that "our budget reflects the fact that educating the whole child often goes beyond a narrow focus on test results," adding that the Senate's spending blueprint "increases funding for the Assessment Consortium to $400K to consider alternatives to the MCAS." Spilka's statement did not address how she thinks the state should squeeze its MCAS program to fit into its tighter budget box.
Even though Bay State students continue to rank at the top nationwide in educational performance, some (nonmonetary) pillars of education reform have been under assault from the Massachusetts Teachers Association. One item on the MTA's legislative agenda has been imposing a moratorium on so-called high-stakes testing and exploring alternative modes of assessment. (The notion that the high-school MCAS exams are high stakes is a little silly given that they test only a sophomore level of learning and that a student has five chances to pass during high school.)
But whether underfunding the MCAS is an effort to undercut the MCAS program or just a ploy to establish a budgetary bargaining chip, it is ill-advised. The Senate is scheduled to wrap up its budget debate on Thursday. One priority should be to restore the MCAS funding to the level the governor requested.