The MCAS is flawed – but necessary
The Gateway Cities Journal
Churchill’s famous quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, resonates for many these days. It’s equally apropos when thinking about where we are at this moment when it comes to MCAS. There’s much to dislike about standardized tests, but doing away with them altogether would put us in the worst possible place coming out of the pandemic. To defeat racism and tackle inequality, we’ll need data we can rely on to document how students are faring and tell us the truth about our efforts to improve.
Without a doubt, those who believe we should abandon standardized tests have sound arguments on their side. The practice of rank-ordering schools into performance categories according to tests score results was hugely short-sighted. It weakened fragile real estate markets in struggling cities, and increased racial and economic segregation. A focus on raising test scores above all else narrowed the curriculum to tested subjects. Relying too heavily on these tests over other forms of assessments has been particularly harmful to students with disabilities or whose native language is not English. And the emphasis on testing undoubtedly made teaching in urban schools less attractive to many experienced educators.
Despite these substantial shortcomings, common standards and accountability provide data that incontrovertibly reveal persistent achievement gaps among students of color and create pressure to respond forcefully. With the prospects of a prolonged economic downturn intensifying socioeconomic disparities, this is hardly the time to weaken our commitment to regularly assessing students with common metrics.
At this incredibly trying moment, the focus of our attention must be on securing the funds promised by the Student Opportunity Act (SOA). Talk of eliminating MCAS could make this task more difficult.
Responding to concerns raised with test-based accountability, the SOA gives districts wide latitude to identify their own strategies to improve performance and gauge progress using their own metrics. Many argued against providing this discretion to communities receiving a huge infusion of state funds. However, the assumption was MCAS would remain firmly in place to serve as a guardrail. Taking MCAS away now would undermine the accountability compromise lawmakers deftly negotiated just one year ago.
Classroom teachers understandably want to know how MCAS will be used in these uncertain times. Providing them with clarity as soon as possible is important. We need test results and we need the data to be transparent. If at all possible, we should test this spring. However, it is not necessary to use these data for high stakes decisions, such as a graduation requirement for this year’s seniors or as a component of teacher evaluation. Whether and how we return to these practices is a decision better left for the future.
In many ways, the legislation filed by Senator Joanne Comerford and Representative Jim Hawkins appears to go too far, suspending the graduation requirement and the sharing of school performance data with parents for an extremely lengthy four year period. However, the bill does include a promising set of provisions to create a commission to review accountability policies and help leaders evaluate the best course of action for the future. Under this review process, the commission would inform its recommendations based on innovative assessment and local accountability systems piloted in up to 25 school districts.
This promising mode of inquiry is consistent with the findings and recommendations laid out in a 2019 MassINC report, which argued Massachusetts should move from a top-down approach, where the state department of education holds sway over accountability with a very limited set of academic achievement measures, toward a more balanced model, where communities augment state accountability with their own forms of assessment and data-driven goals.
The challenge at this moment is finding a way to integrate these local accountability efforts with the implementation plans required by the Student Opportunity Act. Our hope was that communities would use the latitude provided by the SOA to develop new measures to help them understand how well strategic initiatives funded with SOA dollars performed. Regrettably, the limited set of plans we saw emerge just before the pandemic were far from innovative when it came to data and measurement.
Given the short turnaround time districts had to produce their plans, this wasn’t surprising, but it raises lingering questions about whether districts really want to own the responsibility to measure progress and hold themselves accountable for delivering results.
The pandemic hits the pause button. We now have a chance to get this right. Rather than a limited discussion about whether to suspend a narrow set of standardized tests in math, English, and science, now is the time to come to the table and demonstrate how state and local agencies can step up and do a better job providing more robust accountability for student growth and development. Measuring and tracking progress closing gaps across multiple domains is the only way to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to help all children reach their full potential.