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An Unreasonable Assessment

How Massachusetts policymakers’ commitment to administering the MCAS is failing our students.

By Sarah Field

Learning for pre-K-12 students across the state of Massachusetts has been dramatically disrupted over the past year. However, Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced recently that students would still be required to take the (postponed, but not canceled) Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) standardized tests. The same day as this announcement, Riley released a legally binding timeline for all school districts in Massachusetts to return to full-time, in-person school in advance of testing. The reopening plan itself is controversial, especially given that it was released prior to Massachusetts teacher eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination and coincided with Charlie Baker’s blatant disregard for a carefully crafted proposal for the systematic vaccination of teachers. However, educators, families, and students are particularly concerned that, even in the midst of a global pandemic, state officials are continuing to prioritize standardized testing over student health, well-being, and learning.

State officials say that testing is inevitable due to a recent mandate from the Biden administration, in which Biden reversed his campaign promise to end standardized testing. However, state officials can seek waivers to this mandate. On February 17th, a letter was sent to Massachusetts state representatives urging them to seek a waiver and allow local assessments to take the place of state sanctioned tests. The signatories of the letter included leaders of Citizens for Public Schools, the American Federation of Teachers – Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, and many other organizations, as well as the student and parent representatives to the state Board of Education. The letter pointed out that at least five other states (Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Montana, and New York) had already applied for similar waivers to the 2021 testing requirement. A week later, on February 25, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) released a position paper calling on Commissioner Riley, Secretary of Education James Peyser, and the Baker administration to request a waiver and suspend MCAS this year. State officials have not budged, and continue to proceed with plans for MCAS administration this year. 

While it might appear as though the Baker administration is simply sticking to its commitments, the administration has not yet fully funded the long-awaited Student Opportunity Act, an important piece of legislation that passed in 2019 and was designed to significantly increase public school funding across the state and to effectively double funding for low-income students in districts with the highest rates of poverty. In effect, the Baker Administration has said that testing is an inevitability, but fully funding schools—especially schools that serve poor students—is not.

State officials claim that the MCAS is a critical source of academic data, and consequently benefits students. In January, Peyser said, “We really need to have our own dataset to understand where we are and what has happened educationally during the course of this year.” However, educators at every level push back strongly on claims about the value of standardized testing. Nellie Taylor is a veteran math teacher at Easthampton High School, the president of the Easthampton Education Association, and serves on the board of the Massachusetts Teacher Association (MTA). She told me in an interview that “The MCAS is not a test that reveals anything meaningful to teachers during the school year. The results for a group of students are not available until the summer or fall, so teachers don’t even have access to the data to make instructional decisions. There are so many other, more meaningful ways that educators and schools gauge student progress during the school year to inform instruction.” The aforementioned position paper released by the superintendents in MASS points out that MCAS does not capture the data teachers and schools need, and states, “local assessments are a better diagnostic of the missing learning progressions (missing building blocks toward) needed to attain proficiency of a curriculum standard.” 

In his January statement about the MCAS, Peyser used the language of “learning loss” and the “achievement gap.” Many educators take issue with these constructs. Danielle Seltzer, an English and Special Education teacher at Amherst High School, told me, “Anyone who uses the term ‘learning loss’ is trying to protect the standards to which they measure their own mediocrity, and [are] comparing students to an arbitrary benchmark shaped by white people in power. What students have learned and gained this year is so far beyond what policymakers in Massachusetts and beyond can ever conceive. They are learning the skills we need in order to build a more just society now and in the future.” Taylor reframes the language of the “achievement gap,” stating “The ‘achievement gap’ is a racially coded term for students who are coming out of districts that are inherently underfunded because of the way the state allocates resources to schools and funnels public funds to private companies, like the companies that administer MCAS.” 

Also, the state appears to be prioritizing standardized academic data over other data about students’ lives and well-being at this critical moment– focusing resources, time, and policy on student mastery of a narrow set of standards rather than on surveying students about how they are doing and what they are needing, or looking at the authentic work students create. (The YouthTruth survey, a national survey of student voices about school, offers an alternative vision for what meaningful data about student well-being can look like on a large scale.) Seltzer explains, “MCAS basically measures what we already know. Particularly in Massachusetts, where we over-rely on property taxes to fund schools, rich towns have more resources. MCAS is not written by people who understand child development. It’s such a narrow measure of what intelligence means and it doesn’t account for the different kinds of brilliance that students bring to schools.” A teacher in Greenfield, who chose to remain anonymous for this piece, expressed concerns that what the test will measure this year is not aligned with the learning that students have most needed. “This year has been a big social emotional year. We’ve been teaching kids how to self-regulate, how to identify feelings, how to persevere through challenges, so we are not moving through the curriculum at the pace we normally would. This kind of learning is not what the MCAS measures.”

Parents, students, and educators have noted that high-stakes testing is not only unhelpful for student learning, but actually causes a great deal of harm, especially to students in historically marginalized communities—the same communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Sue Sullivan, an ELL teacher at Northampton High School who attended a March 19 standout against the MCAS with the Northampton Association for School Employees (NASE), said in an interview, “MCAS should be cancelled completely because it is racist and severely disadvantages immigrants and students of poverty who have already been through so much trauma.“ 

A recent report from the National Education Association  unpacks how standardized testing has, from its inception, contributed to and reinforced racialized inequities in the American educational system. Not only does standardized testing have its roots in racist belief systems and eugenics, standardized test questions are still biased toward the cultural values and perspectives of the people who make them—predominantly white, middle class designers. In 2019, controversy erupted over an MCAS essay question that asked students to write an essay from the perspective of a white woman who used racist language and refused to hide a runaway slave in her home. A Stanford University study concluded that the question adversely affected the scores of some Black students. Additionally, a study by Northeastern University researcher Louis J. Kruger found that “the MCAS graduation requirement disproportionately harms students in special education.” In other words, the state is pushing for tests that negatively impact BIPOC students and special education students during a year when each of these populations has been especially hard-hit by the impacts of COVID-19. 

Even if the MCAS was an effective assessment, or at least a harmless one, the amount of public funding spent on its implementation in a chronically underfunded educational system should raise eyebrows. The state spends an estimated $30 million annually on the assessments that ultimately funnels state and federal funds toward two private companies, Pearson Education (a company that has been repeatedly exposed for its pattern of profiting at the expense of public school students) and Cognia. This would be a misguided use of resources in a normal year, but the pandemic has put additional pressure on the already strained resources available to our public schools, especially (due to the dependence on local property taxes for school funding) in low-income communities. 

As mentioned earlier in this piece, Governor Baker has delayed funding of the Student Opportunity Act, which would have provided an influx of necessary resources to schools, particularly schools that serve low-income students, Special Education students, and English learners. As Taylor points out, “Due to the pandemic, school budgets are strained across the state, leading to more cuts to staff. This hits paraeducators and custodians first, which means that students who need individualized support are not getting it, and which also means that school buildings are not getting cleaned and maintained in the middle of the pandemic.” Taylor also points out that the routing of resources toward testing (rather than learning) over the past decades has led to hazardous environments for students and teachers during the pandemic. “In towns across Massachusetts, schools are now overcrowded and lack adequate ventilation systems. Easthampton has two elementary schools that don’t have any ventilation systems at all.” The Citizens for Public Schools letter emphasizes, “Test-related funding that can be re-allocated, that includes the annual $30 million for the MCAS testing provider, should be spent on more urgent relief for schools and vulnerable students at this critical time.”

For many, the MCAS is exactly the wrong way to use the scarce in-person time that teachers will have with students this year. “Our students are dealing with grief, food insecurity, economic insecurity, loss of parents, jobs, and housing. The stress their families are experiencing is deeply impacting kids. Students will be coming back to buildings with levels of stress and trauma that we have not seen in one hundred years. No living educator has ever seen students with this level of trauma. We are experts in working with kids who are stressed and need help coping, and we are prepared to support them. We can’t do that if they are sitting taking a test in front of a computer,” Taylor said. 

Massachusetts Teacher Association (MTA) President Merrie Najimy wrote in a statement, “It is cynical for state officials to claim they want to bring students back in person for the sake of their emotional well-being and then require them to take a pressured, meaningless and tedious test the minute they walk through the schoolhouse door.” 

The teacher from Greenfield explained, “When our students come back in April, it will be the first time we meet many of them in person. It needs to be a social emotional time. We’ll be spending our time focused on how we learn together in person, how to deal with noise when we can’t mute ourselves anymore, how to collaborate and have discussions together in person. There is so much to do and then we have to sit and make our kids take this stupid test.” Seltzer concurs: “That in-person time would be best spent healing. Definitely not taking [the] MCAS. We need to spend the last month of school really unpacking and processing everything that has happened in the world over the past year. The opportunities for restorative and student driven dialogue really increase in person, and I think that is what needs to lead when we return to school. This is not separate from learning hard academic skills, but those skills can be taught and assessed in the context of authentic, community-based experiences.”

This year, educators, students, and families have been challenged to radically reinvent learning. They have been forced to reckon with questions about what matters most, what purpose school serves in our society, and what students really need during challenging times. While this year has been incredibly hard, it also represents a cracking open of entrenched systems and an opportunity to begin to think differently about how schools work. Policy makers at the state level in Massachusetts, however, do not seem to be reckoning with these questions, and are proceeding, at any cost, with “business as usual.” In a recent conference keynote, the education scholar Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales said, “There are lots of people in positions of power who say they would like to see education ‘go back to normal’ after the pandemic. The question I have is, ‘what is the “normal” we are returning to, and who does it serve?’” 

Seltzer reflected, “When I think about the upcoming administration of the MCAS this year, I think about how our leaders need to have more collective courage. People who claim they care about racial equity and care for the whole child need to step up. Beyond the state DOE, I’d like to see everyone with institutional power—especially if they’re white, especially if they’re men, especially if they’re wealthy, say, ‘we’re not going to hold it against our 10th grade students if they decline to take the test. We’re not going to hold it against our teachers if they refuse to proctor it.’ If there’s ever a year to step out of the box, this is it.”

Sarah Field is a curriculum designer and former public school teacher who lives in Florence. Photo from a NASE standout on Friday, March 19th, courtesy of Zemora Tevah.

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