Learning disruptions caused by the pandemic reinvigorate debate over MCAS

By Upstateherd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Stella Lorence
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – If there were to be a multiple-choice test question about the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, it might read something like this:

Facing a drop in the students’ scores on the MCAS exam, the state should:

  1. Rethink the structure of the MCAS
  2. Keep the MCAS as-is but use the data to change the strategies in the classroom
  3. Eliminate the MCAS completely
  4. Make no changes to the MCAS or in the classroom

Unlike the real MCAS, this question has no objective right answer. But educators, parents and policy experts have advocated for those options – or combinations of them – in the renewed debate about the test spurred by this year’s lower scores.

The state suspended MCAS exams in 2020, returning in 2021 with a modified version that allowed remote administration and shortened the testing time for grades 3-8.

The statewide percentage of students grades 3-8 who scored “meeting expectations” or “exceeding expectations” on the English Language Arts exams dropped by six percentage points between 2019 and 2021, from 52% to 46%, according to state data.

For math, the drop was even more drastic, 16 percentage points, from 49% to 33%.

While the decrease may have been expected following nearly two years of remote or hybrid learning, the question of what to do about it has revived discussion over the test itself and whether it remains a useful tool for measuring educational progress in the state.

Legislators filed over a dozen bills in the last session related to the MCAS or standardized testing more generally. Collectively, the bills present a picture of some of the biggest criticisms of MCAS, though lawmakers and experts agree that some form of testing is necessary.

“As a teacher, I know that the teacher in the next room grades differently than I do,” Rep. James Hawkins, D-Attleboro, said in a September hearing for two bills he sponsored. “So there is a need for standardized testing for some sort of accountability.”

What form that standardized testing takes, however, has been widely debated and is the subject of at least five bills proposed this legislative session.

One house bill, introduced by Rep. James Kelcourse, D-Amesbury, would institute “computer-adaptive testing” in order to “identify, on an annual basis, the learning standards students likely have already mastered and those which they haven’t,” according to the bill.

In computer-adaptive, or performance-based tests, the testing software uses an algorithm to “choose” the difficulty level of the next section of questions based on the test-taker’s success in the prior section. The Graduate Record Examination has used performance-based testing since 2011.

MCAS has been administered on computers since 2019 after a two-year roll-out, but the adaptive piece would be new for the state.

Chad d’Entremont, the executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, an education-focused think-tank, supports this shift as a way to introduce more flexibility and personalization into standardized tests.

“This really allows [students] to better demonstrate their full body of knowledge in a variety of ways,” d’Entremont said. “The potential for performance-based testing can go beyond the efficiency of students answering slightly different questions.”

Another contentious characteristic of the MCAS is its use as an exit exam for high school students. Massachusetts is one of 11 states that require high school students to pass a standardized test to get their diploma.

Four bills filed this session would repeal the graduation requirement, and one would change it to allow students who don’t pass the exam but meet all other requirements for their district to receive a diploma. 

Paul Reville, founder and director of The Education Redesign Lab, the Francis Keppel Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former state education secretary, supports the exit exam requirement.

“People resist any kind of stakes in general because it means a lot of uncomfortable conversations,” Reville said. He added that he would rather have the time it takes students to meet the state’s standards vary than to have every student graduate in four years regardless of whether they’ve met the standards.

Ryan Irvin, a junior at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, took the MCAS most recently in June. He said he first learned he would have to pass the MCAS to graduate from his eighth-grade science teacher, who explained that it wasn’t meant to keep students from graduating, but just to test what they already knew.

“Once I got to the test and read the questions, it wasn’t that much of a concern,” Irvin said.

Laura Garf, a senior at Needham High School who last took the exam in 2019, said she didn’t think the MCAS was a good indicator of her success as a student or her school’s success. She first learned she would have to pass the MCAS to graduate high school when she was in elementary school.

“As I got into middle school, I saw other grades were more important and more reflective of me as a student,” Garf said. “Plus, it’s so exhausting to be worried about it, so it’s not worth it.”

Parents should also be encouraged to play a more active role in the testing and accountability processes, some experts say. 

Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, D-Somerville, said she’d like to see districts go beyond their requirement to inform parents of their student’s scores and actively engage with parents about the best ways to improve education. 

“Just informing parents of a low score doesn’t provide the parent any information they don’t already know,” Uyterhoeven said.

Edward Lambert is the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a non-profit organization that has been pivotal in the many of the state’s major education reform initiatives. He too said the test could be more “parent-friendly” and districts should follow up with parents after sending out scores.

“You can’t pin everything on one test, but at least if a parent gets that and it looks like a particularly bad year for test scores, there’s an opportunity to find out why,” Lambert said.

Rep. Elizabeth Malia, D-Boston, filed a bill that would require districts to inform parents about standardized testing, including what the tests will measure, whether the assessment is required for graduation, what impact the results will have on the courses students take and whether the test is state or federally required. 

Still, some educators and legislators think MCAS should be done away with completely, rather than reformed.

Uyterhoeven said she’s “not interested in another standardized test.”

She filed a bill this session that would abolish the MCAS and forbid any private for-profit corporations from administering standardized tests in the state.

“With MCAS, when we talk about an anti-racist public education, it’s one of the things that’s identified over and over again as being a massive hurdle,” Uyterhoeven said, adding that standardized tests were originally implemented as an attempt to scientifically “prove” that African Americans were inherently inferior to white people.

Uyterhoeven said the MCAS is no longer needed to determine which districts are struggling and need more resources, and that the state’s formula for determining funding for districts uses more variables to determine the same information.

That formula was overhauled when Massachusetts passed the Student Opportunity Act in 2019, which had a focus on equity, and takes into account the number of low-income families and English language learners in a district in order to channel more funds to districts with higher proportions of those groups.

“We know that based on your zip code, you’re going to have different resources,” Uyterhoeven said. “We already have those numbers, we’re just choosing not to solve those problems.”

The challenge with eliminating the test is that the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2015, requires public schools to administer some form of standardized test in math, science and English language arts.

But the majority of lawmakers and experts agree that some form of standardized test is necessary, especially as schools work to recover the learning gaps from the pandemic.

Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Secretary of Education James Peyser have indicated that they plan to keep MCAS in place as is for the foreseeable future, so the data can be used as a diagnostic tool.

“This data will help shed light on where additional support is most needed and as districts determine how to best use federal relief funds and state aid, these results can help inform their approach,” Riley said in a statement after 2021 MCAS results were released.

Baker has also gone on the record supporting MCAS, and emphasizing its success when paired with the funding formula from MERA.

“It’s all fair to have a conversation on how to improve the assessment, but if you don’t have the exam, you have arbitrary decisions by 641 high schools,” Lambert said. “Some have argued the pandemic is a reason for cancelling the test. I would argue strenuously against that. This is the time we need the data.”

As a state representative for Fall River and a member of the Education Committee, Lambert was involved in the development of MCAS as part of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act.

As he remembers it, the MCAS, and by extension MERA, “really was about equity.” In particular, it was about making sure every school district had the money and resources to provide high quality education, and having high standards.

“Back then, a lot of districts thought that being OK was good enough,” Lambert said.

One proposal from d’Entremont and the Rennie Center is to split the test into shorter segments that are administered throughout the school year rather than all at once at the end. That way, teachers could quickly implement changes in the classroom and get a chance to see the effects of those changes. 

Jill Mullaney, a junior at Needham High School who last took the MCAS in May, said she would have liked if the test was broken up across the year. 

“If it’s 10-20 questions each throughout the year, that’s way better than sitting in a room for two days,” Mullaney said. She added that it would also relieve some of the pressure around the test and be easier on teachers, who could do “little bits of prep” throughout the year.

Another proposal that legislators, including Hawkins and Uyterhoeven, support is letting districts decide what testing materials to use. This discretion would give districts the option to use resources created by educators in the state rather than large third-party services like Pearson or Cognia (formerly known as Measure Progress), which Massachusetts has contracted with to provide MCAS and related support.

A few organizations have been striving to create these resources for educators, including the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. MCIEA is a coalition of eight school districts, including Attleboro, Boston and Somerville, that has been working on designing and implementing new performance assessments and school quality measures.

“It’s not stressful, it doesn’t cost so much money, and it doesn’t require us to teach to the test,” Hawkins said of Attleboro’s work with MCIEA in the September hearing.

The state is already heading in this direction, having partnered with the nonprofit The New Teacher Project to develop the “Acceleration Roadmap,” a framework for helping teachers respond to learning gaps, according to Jacqueline Reis, the media relations coordinator for the Department of Education.

Reis said the roadmap is grounded in data from sources other than the MCAS. The department is also, “unrelated to the pandemic,” continuing to pilot a new science exam for fifth and eighth graders that’s “designed to encourage deeper learning,” and includes computer-based simulations based on real-world lab activities.

Whether the answer lies in a new test or adjustments to the current one, experts and legislators agree that the MCAS is just one small piece of the state’s education aspirations.

“At the core of all this is: What is the world we believe in?” Uyterhoeven said. “And what is the world we want to build?”

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