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State officials have made it harder to pass the MCAS

Passing the state’s required high school graduation exam is set to get harder over the next nine years.

Massachusetts’ board of elementary and secondary education voted 8-3 Monday to raise the passing score on the 10th-grade MCAS English exam starting with freshmen incoming this fall. An amendment calling to further hike passing scores for the class of 2031 passed by the same margin.

Under the plan as amended, the passing score for English/language arts would rise to 486 starting with the class of 2026. For the class of 2031, the passing score would rise again, in both English and math, to 500, or "meeting expectations."

The move went forward despite stiff resistance, on and off the board.

Nearly 100 state lawmakers urged the board to reject the move back in June. Of nearly 240 people and groups who commented on the proposal this spring and summer, 98% opposed it.

Many argued raising cut scores will make students learning English, students with disabilities and other vulnerable groups more likely to fail the high-stakes test and drop out of school.

The MCAS, in place since 1998, has been a required element of graduation since 2003. Massachusetts is one of only 11 states in the country that requires students to pass an "exit exam" measuring competency in math, English/language arts and science.

Board member Mary Ann Stewart of Lexington, who voted against both proposals, said that the public's skepticism suggests that “most parents don’t agree with [state officials’] position — that MCAS-derived measures are the most important measures for student learning.”

Stewart and fellow board member Darlene Lombos noted that, despite the public's opposition, regulators did not alter the regulation. Lombos, who also voted 'no', said she feared a lack of trust in the board and a sense "that there was already a decision made before public comment."

The move’s supporters said that, under the state’s 1993 education reform law, high school students must demonstrate “mastery of a common core skills, competencies and knowledge” as measured by tests — and that state regulators must figure out how to define that "mastery."

Education commissioner Jeff Riley has argued that the current passing thresholds don’t pass that bar, and that students who barely pass aren’t set up for success in college or careers.

But Riley stressed Wednesday he favored a cautious approach: his proposal included a “sunset provision” that would allow the state to review the effects of higher passing scores in 2030.

Board member Marty West persuaded the board to proceed more decisively. His amendment urged the state to push the passing score yet higher in both English and math for the class of 2031 — to a scaled score of 500, where the state's current threshold for "meeting expectations" is set.

West's amendment passed by the same 8-3 margin, even after Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, described it as a "particularly pernicious and last-minute addition to the MCAS Hunger Games" earlier in Wednesday's meeting.

West acknowledged that under his proposal, more students will fail to pass the MCAS after that change goes into effect. But he noted that he hopes the state will strengthen and expand its program for “educational proficiency plans,” an alternative route to graduating for lower-scoring students that draws on teacher input and high school grades.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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