How vital is Massachusetts’ MCAS high school graduation requirement?
Bay State’s largest teachers union is looking to remove requirement while state officials make the case for its importance
Massachusetts is said to be the only state whose only comprehensive statewide graduation requirement is passing a common assessment. Is the MCAS vital? (Canva)
When it comes to debate over the Bay State’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) high school graduation requirement, the monthly meeting of its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, Sept. 19, may have been a preview of coming arguments.
During public comment testimony, leaders of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, trumpeted the campaign they have begun to put a question on the 2024 state ballot that would remove the requirement that students pass the 10th grade MCAS test in English, math, and science to graduate from high school. Later in the meeting, state education officials offered a primer on MCAS history, making the case that it serves as an important indicator of subsequent educational and professional attainment, while allowing the slightest hint of wiggle room for adjustments to the system down the line.
After a presentation by education department associate commissioner Rob Curtin on the history of the MCAS test, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vice chair Matt Hills presented an analysis of the MCAS “competency determination” that determines graduation readiness. It was an unusual move from a board member, with Hills drawing on data provided by Curtin.
According to the Education Commission of the States, around 34 states have some specific assessment requirements for graduation. Massachusetts is the only state whose only comprehensive statewide graduation requirement is passing a common assessment, Hills reported.
To be consistent with other states, Massachusetts would need to offer more course-by-course direction, Hills said, and “that’s not the way we do it here. I can’t tell you which is better or not. But it’s worked pretty well for Massachusetts with the general structure we have in place, with the way the Legislature has funded education.”
Hills emphasized that this was a project in process since last fall, well before the ballot infinitive was filed this year. Debate on MCAS requirements has been roiling well before this ballot season, with teachers unions long arguing that high-stakes testing is not the best way to evaluate student achievement and state education officials saying the standard ensures success in later education and life.
As a parent and a board member, Hills said, “I’m looking at something that – imperfections, problems, and all – is giving us critical information. And is giving families and students critical information. That’s important, not just random information.”
For his part, Curtin said, “nothing I present today should be construed as myself or the department taking any position on a proposed ballot question.” He then spent much of the presentation on data that showed the MCAS is a reliable indicator of post-secondary educational attainment and income. Fear of increased drop-out rates and lower graduation rates because of the MCAS, meanwhile, “has been proven to be demonstrably false,” Curtin said.
Some 70,000 students in the statewide graduating class take the MCAS, Hills said, the vast majority of whom pass the test and are allowed to graduate with a diploma. Though 4 percent do not make that competency bar, Hills said three-quarters of those students also don’t meet local district graduation requirements, indicating MCAS is not the barrier to them receiving a diploma.
“This doesn’t mean there’s not inequities,” Hills said. “This doesn’t mean everything or anything about MCAS or the [competency determination] is perfect. It’s not. it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be further adjustments. There should be. There should always be. if everyone in the state pledged their loyalty to the MCAS, there should still be constant adjustments to figure out what isn’t working.”
Along with the ballot question campaign that the MTA has launched, there is a parallel legislative effort to remove the 10th grade testing requirement for graduation.
Gov. Maura Healey has tried to maintain a delicate balance on the matter so far, aligning herself with the Massachusetts Teachers Association in her gubernatorial campaign but staying shy of calling for an overhaul of the exam system while in office.
For at least four months, Healey’s spokespeople have stuck to one statement on the matter, which they reiterated following yesterday’s education board meeting: “The Healey-Driscoll administration believes assessment plays a necessary role in measuring student achievement. We have been actively engaging with stakeholders to take a closer look at our current testing system, including potential reforms or alternatives that would best support our academic and equity goals.”
Administration education officials did not clarify whether that indicates an active effort to retool the testing requirements. The administration just applauded changes to the K-12 educational standards focused on sexual health, which had not been re-examined for about 25 years.
Adhering to the prior standards, which fell short in many educators’ views in reflecting the realities of sexuality, would be “ludicrous and destructive,” Massachusetts Teachers Association president Max Page told the board at its Tuesday meeting. “So, too, would it be with the high-stakes testing and school takeover program that has done much harm and very little to advance the quality of public education for every student.”
MCAS has been a stake in the ground for longer than the sexual health standards, as the test requirement was ushered in with other education reforms in 1993. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted last year, controversially, to raise the passing MCAS score needed to graduate.
“We have been talking about the harm for years,” said Deb McCarthy, the MTA’s vice president, at Tuesday’s board meeting. “It is time to talk about joy.” She described “jubilation” at the signature gathering process for the MTA’s ballot measure to eliminate the one-time test requirement and replacing it with district-certified coursework.
Having cleared certification from the attorney general’s office, the campaign needs to gather nearly 75,000 signatures in the next few months to begin the process to appear on the 2024 ballot. That seems a straightforward lift for the 115,000-member organization. McCarthy described enthusiastic response from parents and teachers during the signature-gathering process so far, with one organizer telling her “this is the easiest signature to gather.”
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