Educators and advocates are urging state lawmakers to press the pause button on the use of the state’s standardized test program as a graduation requirement and a component of school accountability measures.
Bills filed by Representative Marjorie Decker and Senator Michael Rush would impose a three-year moratorium on what critics describe as the “high-stakes” nature of the MCAS exam, temporarily halting consideration of the results for graduation, accountability rankings, and teacher evaluations.
Supporters of the bills told the Education Committee that the MCAS tests are not working as intended, and a break would give state education officials a chance to come up with new methods of measuring student and school performance.
Jack Schneider, research director for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, said standardized tests can act as a gauge of family income, race, and parents’ educational attainment, while not always capturing “many facets of a good school.”
“The solution is to figure out how not to simply measure demography in disguise while at the same time measuring the many things that good schools do,” he said at a hearing Monday. “Now, if you don’t do that, we will continue to suffer from the unintended consequences of the present system that we have. Just to name a couple of those, teaching to the test, which is absolutely incentivized by the current system; narrowing of the curriculum, which is also incentivized by the present system; stigmatization of low-income and historically marginalized racial groups, which is absolutely linked to the current system; and the systemic disengagement of young people in districts that will not, by virtue of their demography, automatically get high test scores.”
In addition to the moratorium, the bills would create a grant program that would support districts in the development and piloting of “alternative assessment models” and would direct the state auditor to audit the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its contract practices at least every three years.
“Data shows that high stakes testing doesn’t measure outcomes that matter. Assessments are good, but these tests have done nothing to shrink the achievement gap,” Decker posted on Twitter.
Massachusetts has required students to pass the MCAS test in order to graduate high school since 2003. State education officials in 2016 embarked on an effort to overhaul the exam into a “next-generation” MCAS taken on a computer.
No one testified against the moratorium bills at Monday’s hearing. A total of 42 lawmakers are signed on to the House bill, and 12 on the Senate bill.
The Education Committee last session included a similar bill in a study order, effectively killing it.
Representative James Kelcourse, an Amesbury Republican, asked supporters what would happen without the MCAS requirements in place. He said he attended high school before there was testing, but there was a reason the exam model was put in place.
In response, Hull fifth-grade teacher Deb McCarthy described the dynamics in her district during testing periods and said the MCAS experience has changed since the exam was first launched.
“In that time it has morphed into two months of a testing warehouse at our elementary school, grades three through five, where kindergarten schedules are changed, lunch schedules are changed,” she said. “I no longer have a paraprofessional in my classroom. All of our resources are reallocated to the score, because in Hull we’re constantly treading water to make sure we don’t come below that accountability measure that will put us into a category that’s to shame and blame.”