MCAS is an essential barometer

It's a mirror showing where our students are succeeding and where we've failed them

RESEARCH HAS CONSISTENTLY shown that freshman year in high school is a pivotal one for students. It’s the year they develop key academic skills and mindsets that prepare them for postsecondary education, and, crucially, it’s also the year when their performance is predictive of their future. If a student fails algebra or English in the 9th grade, it can not only affect their high school trajectory but also determine whether or not they go to college or end up dropping out.

As a former school leader, I’ve been working with some of the lowest-performing middle schools in Massachusetts to determine why some students enter high school unprepared for the rigors of 9th grade. It’s become apparent that 8th grade presents an unrivaled intervention point to prevent students from falling through the cracks, especially low-income students who’ve historically fared worse than their wealthier peers.

The achievement gap, which I believe is a solvable problem, still persists. The education reform movement, once full of promise to close that gap, has run out of gas over the past decade, with many former advocates seemingly giving up on some of the bold ideas that defined it when it began.

Case in point: MCAS.

For example, I’ve been working as a math teacher at a middle school in Central Massachusetts where the average 8th grader was performing between a 4th and 5th grade level in math at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. To pinpoint where students are falling short, we administer weekly diagnostic tests. Without that data, we’d be without a map trying to chart a path from 4th grade to 8th grade levels in one year. Likewise, at the end of that year, if we didn’t have the MCAS results, we’d have no idea if the students had made any progress toward grade level proficiency compared to their peers across the state.

MCAS is the best tool we have to determine whether or not our students are at grade level for math and literacy. The test serves as a mirror, showing us where we’ve helped our students and where we’ve failed them. Unfortunately, the growing sentiment as of late is to smash that mirror because we don’t like what it’s showing us. This is not a valid reason. If test results are stagnant or declining, it’s not the test’s fault. If we’re teaching a curriculum that meets the same standards mandated by the state, our students should be able to pass the MCAS. If they aren’t, we should be using the results to improve their performance, rather than debating whether or not the results are important. Of course they’re important. They’re a lifeline for all of us to understand how to help our students, our teachers, and our schools.

When I was a public school principal, I remember the anxiety of waiting for those MCAS results to arrive. But I can also attest that when the results are viewed dispassionately, and when positive and negative feedback is used as an engine for change, students and schools improve.

This does not mean MCAS prep should monopolize our classrooms — quite the opposite. If schools can put a viable curriculum in front of students, focus obsessively on how much of it each student learns each day, and do something to close the gaps, MCAS scores will improve.

At UP Academy Boston, an in-district charter school, our teams examined student data on a daily basis, examining which kids learned the material, which ones struggled, and then acted on it the very next day. When it came to MCAS, math and English language arts scores increased in the school’s first four years. In year one, students were at 34 percent proficiency in ELA and by year four, they were at 64 percent. In math, proficiency was at 24 percent in year one and at 60 percent by year four. We didn’t achieve these gains by drilling the MCAS all year, we did it by believing that our job is to cause learning, understanding where our students stand — and intervening immediately.

If you take away MCAS, you take away the ability to look in the mirror and see what’s working and what’s not. It would take away the only tool we have that lets us compare apples to apples across race, class, and geography. It would worsen the damage already being done when consistently low-performing schools serving the most vulnerable students continue to send generations of students to high school without basic math and English proficiency. Finally, it would take away our ability to learn from schools that are actually closing the achievement gap. Massachusetts is blessed with more of these schools than anywhere else in the country. We need to come together and look in the mirror — accept the reflection and work to get better.

James Morrison is the founder of Apollo, an organization working to neutralize the K-12 income achievement gap by transforming 8th grade education. He can be reached at jamie.morrison@8thgradeacceleration.org.