MCAS is a national model for accountability

the anti-mcas activists may not want to hear this, but the MCAS graduation requirement is here to stay. The data does not lie: Our children are learning more, achieving more, and surpassing their peers nationwide.

The MCAS graduation requirement brought true accountability to the state’s public schools, and it allows employers to feel confident in the basic skills of high school graduates. Most importantly, the pressure of MCAS has increased the performance expectations for Massachusetts students and teachers.

And they have responded in spectacular fashion.

Shortly after the passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act and the future promise of the MCAS graduation requirement, Massachusetts was closer to the middle of the nation’s academic pack. Since the graduation requirement kicked in, our numbers have risen steadily on both local and national assessments. Our SAT scores have gone up each year, placing us continually at or near the top of the country. And for two years running, Massachusetts students have been tops in the nation for math and reading proficiency according to the National Assessment of Educational Process. No other state has ever held the top NAEP math and reading rankings in the same year, let alone two years in a row.

Massachusetts and MCAS have been held up as a national model for accountability and balanced assessment. A recent Time magazine report on the No Child Left Behind law heralded “Massachusetts’ high-quality exams” as the “gold standard” that should be adopted as the national assessment system. The report concluded that the MCAS exam was more meaningful than other states’ tests that are too weak, watered-down, or not properly connected to the classroom curriculum.

If we backtrack now, we unravel 15 years of progress.

The MCAS works because it’s not just an off-the-shelf assessment test like so many others. It’s a standards-based test, meaning that kids are tested on what they are actually learning in school. It requires students to demonstrate writing, reading, comprehension, and problem-solving skills. In short, MCAS exams measure the whole education of the whole child.

Critics often assume that students who drop out of high school do so because they cannot handle the pressure of the high-stakes exam, but this is not true. A survey of district superintendents conducted by the Department of Education in 2005 found that family problems and academics were the two main reasons why students drop out of high school. Other reasons included economics, frequent truancy, health issues, and a lack of interest in school. Many high-achieving students have also reported that they dropped out to start working because they didn’t think they could afford the cost of college tuition.

And if the survey results aren’t convincing enough, consider the numbers: The Department of Education just announced that the statewide dropout total decreased from 3.8 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 in 2004-2005 to 3.3 percent in 2005-2006. Of the more than 9,000 students who dropped out that year, more than 2,500 were seniors. And of that total, more than 68 percent had already passed both high-stakes exams.

It is also worth noting that top MCAS performers are more prepared for academic success after graduation, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. The Boston Globe noted that the study “offers evidence that performance on the high-stakes tests is linked to college readiness and bolsters the case that the state’s academic standards are helping to prepare students for college.”

And despite the anti-MCAS activists’ anecdotal stories of students and teachers buckling under the weight of the graduation requirement, the data tell a much different story. In June, the Department of Education announced that 92 percent of students in the class of 2008 had already met the state’s graduation requirement by passing the math and English MCAS exams after only three tries. This was the best performance of any class to this point, and it continues a trend of annual improvements in the passage rate after three attempts.

Mr. Kaplan and Rep. Sciortino are correct in saying that, historically, too many students have been written off and ignored. The result has been generations of students sentenced to a life of mediocrity. We cannot afford for this to continue, as a Commonwealth or as a nation. It is the social, economic, and moral imperative of state and local government to provide equal educational opportunity for every child in the Commonwealth.

The increased statewide classroom accountability brought about by the MCAS graduation requirement was one of the pillars of the Education Reform Act of 1993. In exchange for enhanced accountability, legislative leaders, then-Gov. Bill Weld and the business community agreed to a significant ramp-up in state education funding. Since the beginning of education reform, the state has invested $40 billion in new education funding. There is no doubting the Legislature’s and past and present governors’ commitment to funding the promise of education reform.

If we backtrack on the accountability of MCAS now, we will not only do a disservice to our children, we will unravel 15 years of significant progress. In one fell swoop, we will erase the grand bargain between teachers, students, parents, administrators, and employers that has made Massachusetts the envy of the nation.

But the debate over MCAS, which for the past few years has been quiet, is suddenly growing louder. The anti-accountability activists are back again, this time trying to weaken the foundation of MCAS by adding in a laundry list of ambiguous requirements with little educational merit. If they had their way, new “assessment measures” would continue to be added until MCAS has the weight of a pop quiz. Hopefully, they are not fooling anyone.

Anti-MCAS activists should refocus their energies and join the real education debate going on both locally and nationally. For the past 15 months, key education stakeholders—union leaders, principals, superintendents, elected officials, higher education leaders, and employers—have met at Genzyme to discuss a common agenda to begin the next phase of education reform. During meetings of this group the subject of MCAS rarely comes up. Certainly no one in that room has made a push for eliminating or even weakening the graduation requirement. There is too much important real work to do.

This group, co-chaired by Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer and Analog Devices founder Ray Stata, doesn’t waste time debating the merits of MCAS. It is more focused on pressing educational challenges, such as helping the state’s lowest performing schools turn themselves around, recruiting and retaining the world’s best teachers, and finding ways to support these teachers in the classroom.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
If Massachusetts is to keep its leadership national position in K-12 education—and find ways to outpace our global competitors—we need to set a 21st-century agenda. Giving up on high standards will not get us there. The children of Massachusetts need—and deserve—much, much more.

Christopher R. Anderson is president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Henry Thomas is president of the Urban League of Springfield and a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education.