Massachusetts wants updated MCAS to consider student ‘experiences’

Bid documents describe retooled science, civics, and reading sections

By: - September 25, 2023 4:55 am

Massachusetts is looking at ways to expand accessibility for English learners, introduce science and civics assessments, and craft test items reflective of students and their experiences on the standardized tests all students in grades 3-8 take each year. (Canva photo)

Its future as a graduation requirement may be the subject of much back and forth, but the MCAS test is still in line for a refresh. Amid critiques that the standardized assessment can tend to further marginalize some students, the Healey administration seems to want to emphasize cultural sensitivity in designing the new test.

How vital is Massachusetts’ MCAS high school graduation requirement?

A request for proposals quietly went out earlier this year, seeking a vendor to support the development, production, administration, scoring, and reporting of an updated statewide MCAS test starting in 2025. According to the state Executive Office of Education, the request has been closed and a selection committee is reviewing bids.

“The RFR sought proposals to expand accessibility for English learners, add innovative science and eighth grade civics assessments, reduce testing and score turnover time, and craft test items reflective of students and their experiences,” said an administration spokesperson in a statement. 

Massachusetts is required by federal law to annually test all students in grades 3-8, and the state puts out a request for proposals every eight years to retool its exam. The recurring bid process, therefore, says nothing about Gov. Maura Healey’s views on the 10th grade test students currently must pass to graduate from high school. 

The state and its largest teachers union have been at loggerheads for years over the use of MCAS as a graduation requirement, as well as its use to determine levels of state oversight and intervention in low-performing schools and districts. 

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has put forth a ballot measure that would remove the MCAS as a requirement for graduating high school, and is backing legislation that would do the same. But for the foreseeable future, MTA president Max Page acknowledges, the MCAS will stay in the picture.

“Given that, we should fix what can be fixed about it,” he said in a statement. “There is broad agreement – from both ends of the political spectrum – about the need for immediate fixes.” 

The changes proposed by the teachers seem to align neatly with the Healey administration’s proposed alterations for the test vendors.

Page said the tests should take less time to take and return to districts, be made available in multiple languages, and “incorporate culturally relevant material that reflects the increasing diversity of our state’s student population.” He added, “we have seen how the test can harm systemically marginalized students, and we insist that as we develop better assessment tools, we are also analyzing our student population and determining the best methods of instruction and assessment.”

Cultural responsiveness has caused issues with past MCAS tests. In 2019, state education officials removed a question from the exam, about a year into its use, after blowback within some Boston schools. The question, according to the MTA and advocacy groups, asked students to write a journal entry from the perspective of a character in Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad “who is openly racist and betrays slaves trying to escape.”

Directions in the last MCAS bid request largely stayed away from cultural sensitivities, with “race” used only once in the detailed bid description attachment when calling for a diverse range of authors included in English assessment reading passages. It did make mention of the need to avoid bias, stereotyping, or insensitive language through a “bias and sensitivity committee” process. This year, specific guiding questions for the bias and sensitivity committee are included in an appendix.

According to the appendix, test reviewers should consider whether assessments use offensive or negative framing when portraying racial or ethnic groups, people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, religions or religious people, and people of different ages and different income brackets. 

During the test’s last refresh in 2016 – the much touted “next generation” MCAS – discussion focused on its transition to a computer-based test. The new test redesign process is beginning while the state wrestles with results from the most recent MCAS. 

Though the pandemic slide in scores has leveled out, statewide just 50 and 58 percent of sophomores “met or exceeded expectations” in math and English language arts, respectively, slightly up from the year before.

The new test would create writing rubrics that would require less writing for children in grades 3-8. There would also be a pivot from reliance on “high-quality works of literature and respected sources” to passages written specifically for the MCAS.

The science and technology/engineering test for grades 5 and 8 will get a new look in 2026, with the STE section including a storyline-based scenario where students can design experiments, collect and analyze data, develop models, and/or make observations. The 8th grade civics section would also be restructured to include a new “end of course” test covering the breadth of the civics standards.


This story originally appeared Sept. 22, 2023, in CommonWealth, a nonprofit journal of politics, ideas and civic life published by published by MassINC.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a staff reporter at CommonWealth magazine. A California native by way of Utah, Jennifer has spent the last 12 years in Boston, covering Massachusetts news for a variety of publications. She worked breaking news in the Boston Globe’s metro section and provided courtroom coverage of the Boston Marathon trial for the international wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) while completing her undergraduate journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston. For four years, Jennifer worked as a staff writer and later news editor for the Dorchester Reporter, covering her home neighborhood and the city of Boston with a particular focus on politics and development.