It’s time to reimagine MCAS

Let's make the state test a more powerful aid to instruction and student learning

SHOULD WE, or should we not, eliminate the MCAS test? It’s a question as old as the test itself. The debate has been raging for decades, and is coming to a head as schools navigate pandemic learning loss. It’s time to shift the conversation — and the question. The question we should be debating is how can we make the MCAS better? That’s the aim of a policy brief we recently issued at the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. 

We are in the midst of the biggest crisis to face student learning in generations. To put the situation in perspective, my fourth-grade daughter and her classmates last experienced a complete year of schooling in the first grade. We can all agree that it’s critical to understand where students are in their learning so that we can address learning gaps. But, as the leader of an education research organization, I can tell you with confidence that MCAS scores do very little to inform classroom teaching. 

The recently released MCAS results show us that scores dropped from pre-pandemic levels. Is this a surprise to anyone? And, more importantly, does knowing this tell us how to help students? These scores were released months after the tests were taken, after the start of the new school year. Administrators and teachers have already spent the summer planning for how best to address unfinished learning and districts have submitted their plans for how to use over a billion dollars federal COVID relief funds. The most critical decisions on what learning will look like in the coming academic year have already been made. 

MCAS results give us a snapshot of student learning once a year, after it’s too late to do anything meaningful with the results. We should be giving educators and families real-time data on student progress multiple times throughout the year. That kind of data could be used to adapt lesson plans and provide individualized support when students need it most.

Advances in technology have given us the power to make this happen. Adaptive, computer-based tests react to students’ responses, selecting new questions in real time based on the way questions are answered. This means tests take much less time so they can be given on multiple occasions throughout the year. This type of test also provides immediate results so that teachers can see how their current students are doing with material they recently taught at a time when they can still take action to address learning gaps. 

Technology also gives us the ability to offer tests that truly measure student learning. Decades of data show that MCAS scores are more indicative of community wealth and parental education levels than they are of school performance. Adaptive, computer-based tests offer students expanded opportunities to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in ways that better align with their learning styles and cultural experiences, enabling them to share the full range of their knowledge and skills. For example, assessments currently exist that allow students to choose from a selection of writing prompts based on which feels most relevant to their life experiences. 

Do we need state assessments? Yes. This data is critical, especially after the learning losses of the past year, and federal law requires it. But do assessments have to look the same as they have for nearly 25 years? Absolutely not. Offering culturally responsive, adaptive tests with real-time results throughout the year would both meet our federal requirement and inform teaching and learning in a meaningful way.  

This is not just wishful thinking. Aspects of these approaches are taking root in other states. The governor of Florida just announced a proposal to give three short exams throughout the year to monitor student progress. The online adaptive tests their proposal envisions means that students are given individualized questions and teachers receive real-time data to tailor instruction.  

As the state that considers itself number one in education, how is Massachusetts falling so far behind in the way we assess student progress? If we could shift all the energy that has gone into the MCAS versus no MCAS debate toward thinking about how we can improve our system, we might actually get somewhere. Let’s all agree that something needs to change. Let’s create an assessment system for today’s schools and today’s students. 

Chad d’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy which produced Rethinking the MCAS, a policy brief outlining recommendations for the future of the MCAS.  

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