The annual Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, required of all students in public schools, will be administered this year, despite concerns from school administrators about what exactly the data from this year’s tests will be used to measure.
“The whole year going back to March,” said Nauset Regional High School Principal Chris Ellsasser, “there’s an asterisk next to all of that.”
The tests in English language arts and math, which are administered in grades 3 through 10 throughout the spring, were canceled last year when schooling went online because of the pandemic. In September, the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said it planned to begin 2021 MCAS testing as early as January. Then, in December, as Covid cases continued to climb, the DESE said the tests would be postponed “until later in the year.”
The latest memo from the DESE came in a Jan. 5 letter to school superintendents, in which Education Commissioner Jeff Riley wrote, “The extent of the loss [due to the pandemic] in the Commonwealth is not yet known.”
Riley detailed changes to be made to this year’s tests, including shortened testing sessions and a pending directive, now official, that the class of 2021 will not be required to pass the 10th grade MCAS to graduate. In addition, no schools will be judged “underperforming” because of test results this year.
“Tentative” schedules for this year’s tests have now been posted. “They’re kicking the can down the road again,” said Nauset High Assistant Principal Sean Fleming.
While schools are left in limbo about the test schedule, many statewide leaders don’t understand why the tests aren’t simply being canceled.
The board of the Mass. Association of School Committees voted 112 to 9 in September to call for “a moratorium on all high stakes testing for the 2020-2021 school year.”
“I don’t know what they think they’re measuring,” said Beth Kontos, president of the Mass. branch of the American Federation of Teachers. Riley’s Jan. 5 letter stated that MCAS testing would give families and teachers “critical insight into academic losses that need to be addressed this spring and summer.” But Kontos noted that MCAS test results typically aren’t available until the following academic year.
“What we need to know about our students we already have from in-house data,” Principal Elsasser said. “When we see a student who was getting ‘A’s, and now he’s getting ‘C’s, that’s a much clearer indicator of who needs help. We don’t need MCAS to know which kids are struggling.”
The MCAS was created in 1993 as part of an education reform effort that was advertised as a way to increase funding for underserved communities. In spite of the fact that high-stakes uses of standardized tests (such as deciding whether individual students should get a high-school diploma) are widely seen as invalid by test experts, school reforms tied to test results are popular. And in the seven years following the adoption of the MCAS, state funding to public schools doubled.
But a 2018 state Senate report noted that, since 2002, state funding has not kept pace with inflation and public schools’ needs. “In fact,” the report stated, “adjusted for inflation, state funding is now less than in 2002.” Yet the MCAS remains.
The Testing Battle
The MCAS has long been controversial, as parents, teachers, and policymakers argue over whether the data it generates help address the state’s educational inequities or exacerbate them. Why do we need new data every single year? What defines a “good school”? And, most important, is MCAS helping kids or hurting them?
“Even before the pandemic,” said William Mulholland, president of the junior class at Nauset Regional High School, “I always thought MCAS was unfair, because it’s setting every single school in Massachusetts to the same standard, when every school is not evenly funded.”
Mulholland referred to the fact that school funding is often correlated to the revenue local governments can generate from property taxes. Wellesley’s schools, for example, are better funded than Brockton’s.
And high-stakes tests are undeniably stressful for students. Mulholland remembers crying during the essay portion of the fourth-grade MCAS. “I thought it was the most stressful thing,” he said.
Bonnie Bartolini, a special education teacher in the Nauset Schools, remembers staying at school until 5 p.m. one year with students who needed all the time they could get to finish the exam. Since then, the DESE has allowed students who need more time to complete the exam the following day.
Either way, Bartolini said, students taking MCAS “are not learning for the week — they’re testing for the week.”
One of the state’s most controversial policies allows it to take over “underperforming” school districts, that is, those with very low test scores. In such cases, the local elected school committee is stripped of authority. “Why would you lose a democratic right because students are testing low?” Kontos asked.
A ‘Segregation Machine’
Organizations on both sides of the MCAS debate have seized on this year’s uncertainty to argue more strenuously for their respective positions.
Ed Lambert, president of the Mass. Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), said MCAS testing can show which students have been most affected by the disruption and disarray of online learning. “The digital divide is real,” he said.
“One of the ironies,” said Lambert, “is that some of the groups most concerned about MCAS are the same groups that benefit from knowledge of the size of the achievement gap. You can’t measure an achievement gap if you don’t give an MCAS exam.”
But many people believe you can. Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at UMass Lowell and leader of the research group Beyond Test Scores, wrote in The Atlantic that 60 percent of the variance in student test scores is due to socioeconomic factors.
“MCAS isn’t going to tell us anything that we don’t already know about which kids need extra help,” Schneider told the Independent. “We knew before the pandemic who needed the most support. And we know that the pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on those same kids.”
Schneider believes that tests like MCAS actually hurt certain kids and the communities they come from. Although MCAS results do not directly determine school funding, indirectly they do. Schneider attributes much of this to the website GreatSchools.org, which is funded primarily by the Walton family, owners of Walmart. GreatSchools.org rates schools on a scale of 1 to 10, based almost entirely on standardized tests, and puts the scores online in a clear, attractive format. It turns public school districts into something families can shop for “like cereal,” Schneider said.
“The worst thing that GreatSchools does,” he said, “is build their ratings into real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia that allow people to filter according to GreatSchools ratings. That’s a segregation machine. We know that when you’re searching for the ‘9’ and ‘10’ schools on Zillow that all the schools in Somerville and Chelsea are going to disappear.” Schneider has a 10-year-old in Somerville Public Schools.
The Nauset Schools do relatively well on the MCAS — on GreatSchools, Nauset High gets a 7. “The only thing that’s helpful from MCAS results is that more people come to Nauset, because we do well on the exam,” Bartolini said. “The state thinks it’s measuring how we perform, but they’re really measuring our demographics.”
At a Jan. 26 panel on high-stakes testing, held via Zoom, Schneider said, “What do we want for young people in our communities? I guarantee you the answer is never basic academic competencies in two subject areas. Schools are essential lifelines. At their best, schools motivate and engage kids.”