MCAS — No One Wants It, and Yet...
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) came out of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act that officially instituted, among other things, state-wide educational goals, foundational district budgets, charter schools, and standardized testing. Prior to the passage of the Education Reform Act, no state-wide curriculum, charter schools, or school choice existed in the Commonwealth.
This new suite of education practices put in place the mechanisms under which the state still operates today. The class of 2003 was the first group of students for whom passing MCAS was required to graduate high school; leading up to this, the test was met with significant pushback from parents, students and educators alike; in 2001, the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS (SCAM) and the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education or (CARE) planned walk-outs, rallies, vigils, and teach-ins, and hundreds of students boycotted — in Amherst alone, 20% of the school’s sophomores refused to complete the test.
Nearly three decades since the Education Reform Act, the sentiment surrounding MCAS has not changed much. The necessity (or lack thereof) and future of the test has been a thorn in MTA’s side for years; it’s one issue teachers, union leadership, and the general public largely agree on — nearly no one sees the value of the test except the education commissioner and his superiors.
When Governor Baker instituted the state of emergency in March 2020, MTA immediately began a marketing campaign pushing for the cancelation of MCAS, urging its members, parents, and the general public to contact Education Commissioner Jeff Riley in support of the cancelation. Unlike their social media posts promoting remote learning in the fall, MTA’s call to action surrounding MCAS was universally and widely supported, with their posts gaining more traction and engagement than any other subject during the pandemic.
“If it’s acceptable to cancel this year, is it ever REALLY NEEDED other years? #CancelMCASForever,” one commenter wrote. “Administering MCAS this year would be an absolute waste of money and would demonstrate to everyone that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education truly does not care about our students or teachers,” another remarked. “Teaching to Test is NOT Teaching! All these tests prove is the income bracket of the parents.”
On April 10, 2020, Commissioner Riley officially announced the cancellation of MCAS for the 2019-2020 academic year, sparking a new campaign by MTA asserting that if the test could be deemed inessential for one graduating class, then MCAS should —and could— be canceled for years to come.
From July 2020 through May 2021, MTA embarked on a robust online and in-person campaign calling for the cancelation of high-stakes testing in Massachusetts. On their website, MTA provided talking points, sample motions and resolutions, action steps and instructions on how to opt out of MCAS if the state would not officially cancel.
“The use of standardized tests in public education has long raised concerns. In light of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, waiving standardized testing requirements is especially urgent now,” the site reads. “Testing is diverting precious time and energy needed for teaching and supporting students just to tell us what we already know: The pandemic has negatively impacted them, especially low-income students of color. The MTA and allies are continuing to fight by raising public awareness about the negative impact of high-stakes testing on students and by advocating for a bill to end the state’s MCAS-based high school competency determination forever."
Support for the MTA’s movement toward MCAS abolition quickly gained momentum on the ground with teachers and staff throughout the academic year. After Commissioner Riley announced the reinstatement of MCAS this spring, many teachers refused to administer the test to their students in protest. Rose Levine, a fifth-grade teacher at the Graham & Parks School in Cambridge, wrote, “I and more than 50 of my colleagues in Cambridge are refusing to proctor these tests. We are proud to be conscientious objectors to a policy that harms our students… As educators, we have never supported the MCAS testing system..a public-facing, test-based compliance system serves only to reinforce gaps in opportunity and racist perceptions of our Black and Brown students." Levine was later punished for her refusal to proctor the exam with a one-day suspension without pay.
In Hull, fifth grade teacher Deb McCarthy said it bothered her to refuse to administer the MCAS, but the pandemic compelled her to fight for her kids. “I cannot be the educator that I was meant to be if I do something that’s wrong,” she said. “Wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it, and right is right even if no one is doing it." McCarthy was recently sent home on administrative leave for two days for refusing to give the test to her students.
Throughout the state, public rallies supporting cancelation took place with MTA president Merrie Najimy and vice president Max Page. In Quincy, Sean Greene, president of the Quincy Education Association, gathered with fellow teachers, noting that it was cruel and wasteful to force students to return to in-person school and immediately take the hours-long test. "In this year, when we've had so little in-person learning, to dedicate so much to the MCAS doesn't make sense to us," he said. "There has been a lot of talk about the social and emotional wellbeing of students ... and to take these few in-person weeks and teach solely to the MCAS isn't in the best interest of teachers and their students."
Beyond Commissioner Riley, the only vocal opposition to MTA’s movement toward ending MCAS seems to be connected to pro-charter, anti-union entities. The Boston Globe Editorial Board—the same one that endorsed Great School Massachusetts’s “Yes on 2” Campaign— argued that “lawmakers need to deliver a clear ‘no’ to union efforts to end the graduation exam.”
“It’s a natural tendency of unions to want to shield their members from change, accountability, and competition. That, however, is where legislators should be expected to display some backbone,” they write. “Moving to the sort of system the MTA advocates, where there is no uniform standard to judge whether students have mastered their coursework, runs the very real risk of letting nation-leading Massachusetts lapse back to its pre-education-reform days. When it comes to education policy, lawmakers have to put the considered best interests of the state’s schoolchildren above union concerns."