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WSPN’s Genevieve Morrison discusses the need for the Massachusetts Board of Education to change MCAS testing as we know it.

Opinion: It’s time to revamp MCAS

MCAS, affectionately referred to by students as the Massachusetts Child Abuse System, is a standardized testing system that we all know and love. Introduced in 1993, the exam assesses science, math and English Language Arts, from grades three through ten. Over the past few decades, MCAS has middlingly done its job. Now, decades later, it’s time for a change.

The duration of the test itself is a hot point of contention. Every spring, students sit through three two to five hour long sessions. For most students, this is longer than the Massachusetts Teaching Licensure Exam (MTEL), the bar exam, and the MCAT. In high school, students are allowed to leave two to three hours in if they finish early. However, no productive learning occurs on MCAS days because teachers aren’t allowed to introduce new material or assign homework. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to complain about a lack of homework, but from a learning loss standpoint, three whole days of school is a lot to miss for standardized testing.

MCAS also has a history of racial issues. In 2019, the exam included an essay question about writing from the perspective of a racist character in Colton Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad.” The character, a white woman named Ethel, betrays the main characters, two runaway enslaved people, on their journey to freedom. The fact that this question was approved is appalling. Imagine being a student of color being forced to take a test that encourages racist thinking for the sake of an essay prompt.

Aside from the blatant racial insensitivity of the questions, the results of MCAS disproportionately affect communities of color and people in special education. In 2017, 65% of white students in Amherst, MA met or exceeded the standard on math MCAS, while only 14% of black and Latinx students did the same. These disparities are not between counties or even districts, they are within the same school. For these students, a passing MCAS grade can be the difference between a high school diploma and dropping out.

The value the state places on MCAS in turn puts an inordinate amount of stress on students. Students as young as third grade are required to take the test, which means students as young as third grade are subjugated to the pressure of a passing MCAS score. Of course the score means nothing to the student at an elementary level, but for their teachers and administrators, it’s a whole different story. MCAS scores can be a key factor in teacher evaluations, which can determine salary and state funding for schools.

Once you enter high school, the stress on teachers remains, and the stress on students only rises. Passing the MCAS test is a requirement to graduate in all Massachusetts schools. In 2011, the state denied 2,500 seniors high school diplomas for failing the science section of the MCAS test. Some of these students even passed the other sections, but since they failed science, they could not graduate. The amount of weight this places on MCAS is insurmountable. If students are passing all of their classes, there should be no reason why they can’t graduate. Not graduating high school is essentially a prescription for chronic unemployment. The average yearly income for a person without a high school diploma is $30,784. Denying students a diploma for reasons as insignificant as one test is ridiculous.

With all of this said, a broad examination of schools is necessary. I do not agree with those who say the exam should be removed altogether. As Wayland students, we are lucky. Our high taxes provide us with a high quality education and MCAS scores reflect that. Last year, the class of 2023 earned a 98% and 97% passage rate on the math and English MCAS sections, respectively. Some students, especially those in higher level classes, might even find the test easy. However, we are the exception, not the rule. MCAS is very effective at tracking struggling districts and closing opportunity gaps. Some version of it is undoubtedly necessary to keeping Massachusetts students on track.

After all, this exam is not the end-all-be-all of standardized testing. There are many other options as for how to regulate learning. The structure of the test has largely stayed the same since its inception in 1993. Since then, we have learned a lot about education, and the Massachusetts Board of Education has evolved into more progressive teaching styles. We now know that most students don’t perform at their best sitting behind a desk filling in multiple choice questions. The only thing left stuck in the past is the MCAS.

The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment is leading the charge in finding an alternative to MCAS. Their assessment incorporates STEM, math and reading comprehension skills. It would consist of a research project, a building exercise and a report including blueprints and diagrams.

The very law that introduced MCAS calls for “authentic and direct gauges of student performance,” and that students should be judged “as much as is practicable,” on the basis of “work samples, projects and portfolios.” This means that MCAS as it is now, is completely legally unnecessary.

We’re ready to step into the future of education. It’s time to revamp MCAS.