Proposed legislation suspending the high school MCAS tests under review

Doug Page

A bill in the Massachusetts legislature suspending the MCAS exams the Bay State’s public high school students must pass to earn a diploma – due to the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic – is being vetted by the Joint Committee on Education.

The Committee is seeking written testimony about the proposed legislation, but it’s unknown whether it will be passed by the committee.  If it is passed, it will likely undergo further review by the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, says a Beacon Hill staff member.

Introduced by State Sen. Joanne Comerford, a Democrat whose district includes Hampshire and Franklin counties in western Massachusetts, in late June, it would defer the high school MCAS requirement for four years, between 2020 and 2024.

Her bill proposes creating a commission consisting of members of the legislature, the state secretary of education, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley, the Bay State’s teachers’ unions, and some interest groups, including the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Muslim Justice League, to review the impact of the high school MCAS tests.

“With Covid-19, this is an exceedingly stressful time for students, teachers and school committees across the Commonwealth.  MCAS is one more significant stressor for students,” Comerford said.  “The logical thing to is not to take away time for learning when so much time is needed for learning recovery.”

State Rep. James Hawkins (D-Attleboro) also filed legislation in June to shelve the MCAS high school exams for three academic years, starting with the coming school year, due to Covid-19.  He expects his bill to be vetted by the Joint Committee on Education, too.

“School districts don’t know if they’re going back to school full time, will have to implement some sort of hybrid model (teaching kids both at school and at home) or be full-time remote,” he said.

“Plus school districts are dealing with smaller staff because many teachers and staff have been pink slipped or retired. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with lunches.  How are school buses going to implement social distancing?  Why do we have to do MCAS testing on top of that?” Hawkins added.

It's unknown when either bill could come up for a vote by both houses of the legislature. It’s also unknown whether the U. S. Department of Education (DOE) would allow Massachusetts not to test its high school students.

Massachusetts is one of 11 states, and the only one in New England, requiring its public high school students to pass an exam before they earn a diploma, down from 27 states that previously required them, says FairTest, an organization tracking which states require the exams.

“The lack of a high school diploma feeds the wealth gap and racial inequities,” said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s interim executive director. “Graduation tests potentially put kids out on the street without a diploma, which is a necessary credential for a decent job and many other societal benefits.

“They’re doing this to kids who otherwise completed their high school coursework with adequate grades. They’re going to be way behind the eight-ball for sustaining themselves and their families.  Many states have recognized that and dropped them,” he added.

The high school MCAS tests – one each for English, math, and science – like those given in grades 3 – 8, rests on two laws, a federal and a state one.  The exams came about because of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform law, which put more Commonwealth money into the state’s K – 12 public schools and have been taken since 1998.

In addition, Massachusetts, because it receives federal money from the DOE – nearly $700 million during the current fiscal year, which started in September – under Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, to fund its public schools, is required to administer a standardized test to its high school student as well as those in grades 3 – 8.

There is no requirement under ESSA, says a DOE official, that the results of any high school standardized test, in whatever state it’s given, determine whether a student earns a diploma. That’s up to individual state legislators and governors. State and federal education laws requiring standardized tests don’t apply to students in private or parochial schools.

Earlier this year, before the public schools closed due to Covid-19, DESE received a waiver from the DOE, under the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act) allowing it not to administer the MCAS tests for those grades that are tested.  Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed legislation, approved by the Massachusetts legislature, gave DESE state permission to waive or modify the MCAS exams.  

As a result, Commissioner Riley granted high school seniors in the class of 2020 – who had yet to pass the MCAS exams – an exemption, allowing them to receive their diploma as long as they met all other graduation requirements or could show, through their transcripts, they passed courses covering material that would have appeared on the high school MCAS test.

“The MCAS test provides some very important information for parents and educators,” said Edward Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, an advocacy group supporting the MCAS exams.  “It says whether students are meeting the standards that have been determined with teacher input.

“MCAS has propelled Massachusetts public schools to first in the nation.  The idea that we should stop assessing students and return to a system that is not based on data is a wrong one,” he added.

DESE reports that 88 percent of students across the Commonwealth’s high school class of 2019 graduated after four years while 5.3 percent of the class dropped out. Nearly 91 percent of all female students graduated on time while nearly 86 percent of all male students did.   

In its detailed demographic review of the high school class, DESE reports that more than 90 percent of Asian and white students graduated after four years in 2019 while nearly 80 percent of African American students did. More than 74 percent of Hispanic students graduated in 2019 after four years of high school. Seventy-nine percent of students considered economically disadvantaged graduated after four years of high school in 2019.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, reports that adults without a high school diploma make around $32,000 annually compared to the nearly $40,000 people with a high school diploma earn. People with a bachelor’s degree or advanced collegiate degrees earn even more, just over $72,000, on average, reports the Bureau.