As some push back against MCAS, defenders of the test unite behind report
Going into a week where students across Massachusetts will sit for state-required standardized tests, a newly formed coalition of education organizations will step into the arena and throw its support behind the controversial exams against a backdrop of continued and heightened debate.
Influential groups including Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and Teach for America Massachusetts came together under a banner they dubbed "Voices for Academic Equity," inaugurating its arrival on the scene with a report arguing that the benefits of the MCAS exam far outweigh its possible flaws.
"We maintain that MCAS, while in need of targeted revisions, is the primary means for providing students, families, educators and policymakers with the objective, valid, reliable, comparable information essential to determining gaps in outcomes, preparedness for college and career success, and where additional resources are most needed — especially for those who have been and continue to be systemically marginalized: students of color, those with disabilities, English Learners, and students from low income families," the report, acquired by the State House News Service, said.
The state's largest teachers union launched a campaign this year against the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, warning that schools around the state will be "transformed into testing warehouses" this spring and calling for replacing "the punitive, high-stakes, rank-and-shame accountability system."
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has long opposed the exams that were created in a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.
This year, in addition to advocating on Beacon Hill for the eradication of the tests, the union is supporting educators who object to giving the standardized exams and informing parents on how they can opt their children out of taking it.
The Voices For Academic Equity coalition came together and crafted its report as a response to "recent calls for the elimination of our state assessment," the group said.
Convened by Education Reform Now Massachusetts, part of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts, the coalition includes the Boston Schools Fund, EdTrust Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, Mass Insight, the National Parents Union, Teach for America Massachusetts, TeachPlus and The Teachers Lounge.
The organizations argue that the MCAS is necessary to expose inequities between student groups and districts, measure trends in students' outcomes over time, serve as an "objective indicator" of students' readiness for college and the workplace.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education uses the MCAS to collect data on schools' performance and achievement gaps between districts and student groups as well as to implement targeted interventions for districts scoring below state standards.
"MCAS truly is a tool for equity. It provides educators with information on how their students are doing and what lessons are resonating, and what may not be resonating. That's one of the things that has been lost in this conversation — MCAS is a tool. It doesn't tell us everything, but it tells us something really important about how kids are doing in the classroom," said Mary Tamer, state director of Massachusetts' Democrats for Education Reform.
Opponents of the test often argue that the exams show persistent learning gaps without triggering support to close them, the report says. But the coalition described that argument as a "misperception" because state spending on education has continued to increase since the 1993 education reform law, most recently with the Student Opportunity Act, which specifically uses MCAS data to target districts that need increased funding to help students who are being left behind.
Tamer said this data is even more important as districts try to recover from learning losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After two years of remote schooling, learning loss can be seen in students' scores. Results from the spring 2022 MCAS were mixed: math and science scores improved statewide from 2021 results, but English language arts scores declined. And compared to pre-pandemic levels, the overall results "show continued need for improvement," the department has said.
"Especially over the last few years of the pandemic, we know students are struggling more than ever with anxiety, depression, suicidality, and certain groups are falling even farther behind. There is so much more we need to know, and MCAS is one of the only tools we have to give us data where we can compare students," Tamer said. "It shows — how are our English learners doing? How are students of color doing? Students with disabilities? If we don't have a system of measurement, it's kind of like putting blinders on and pretending that everyone is starting off on a level playing field."
Though the coalition supports keeping the exam in place, it also recommends improvements to the system.
One of the main arguments against the test is that teachers and parents do not see students' scores until the following school year.
MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy, who left her job teaching 5th grade last year to join the MTA full-time after she refused to proctor the exam and was put on administrative leave two years in a row, has said in the past that teachers can't use the MCAS results to assess their students' weaknesses and intervene because the spring test results are not shared until the fall.
"I was never able to use the data from test results to readjust my curriculum to meet student needs, because by the time I got the results, those students were in sixth grade," she said, comparing the MCAS to a different testing program her district used which showed results immediately.
The Voices for Academic Equity coalition recommends getting MCAS results to educators and families more quickly, and providing families with specific guidance and support to understand their child's score.
For example, the group said DESE could use computer adaptive testing and artificial intelligence to speed up scoring. Erin Cooley, policy director at Massachusetts' Democrats for Education Reform, said there are new, well-tested AI programs that can mimic a human's grading strategies and employ them itself.
If teachers and parents got the MCAS results prior to the end of the school year, they could create a plan for students who may benefit from targeted summer support before they enter the next grade, the report says.
Though the department should look into ways to accelerate the scoring process, Tamer said, there are still benefits to the data if teachers don't receive it until the fall.
"If you see a majority of your students missed a section that had to do with, say, addition and subtraction, you could say 'I seemed to miss the boat with this type of lesson plan, what can I do differently this year?'" she said. "We'd love to see that that data is being used as effectively as it was intended, but even if it comes at the start of the school year, it still gives teachers the opportunity to reflect on instructional gaps."
Tamer also said DESE should be "more transparent with families" and "share results in a way that actually means something."
Parents get a report from the department in September or October each year with their child's exam results. Though it says how many questions they got correct, the report does not include what each question was, their child's answer to the question, or why they might have gotten it wrong, she said.
"As a parent, how do I use that information to help my child?" Tamer said.
Another issue, Tamer added, is that parents who do not speak English have to go to DESE's website to find translated results of the test results.
The coalition recommends the department provide support for families to interpret what results actually mean for their children, and to make the whole process more accessible for those who do not speak English as a first language.
Also among their proposed actions is requiring funding for translated tests in more languages. Currently, Massachusetts provides the 10th grade math test in Spanish and offers biology and introductory physics tests in American Sign Language and Spanish, the report says. Michigan, New York, Washington and Hawaii offer tests in multiple non-English languages.
The coalition also recommends including educators of color in the creation and development of the test to prevent cultural biases.
"Teach Plus and Teach Plus teacher leaders have heard from educators from across Massachusetts that they want assessments that document how much their students are learning, are equitable, and represent our student population," said Chris Marino, Teach Plus Massachusetts' executive director. "There are important areas for improvement in MCAS which will ensure that the assessments are high quality, useful and fair. We believe that teachers should be at the table when the MCAS is updated, and we are excited to hear from teachers as we continue the work of ensuring that our assessment system better serves students and educators in our state."
The coalition focused on recommendations that the department could accomplish "in the coming months."
"We see a real opportunity for meaningful areas of improvement that shouldn't be a heavy lift and will make MCAS a more useful and equitable tool," Tamer said.