Putting MCAS to the test 

Is the standardized assessment a valuable tool or a damaging, blunt instrument? 

SCORES RELEASED LAST WEEK from the spring 2022 MCAS paint a pretty worrisome picture, showing that student achievement in the state still lags below levels seen on the 2019 test, the last one given before COVID hit, a clear sign of the ongoing impact of pandemic learning loss.

What are the big takeaways from the new results? 

Mary Tamer and Jack Schneider, in a lively discussion on this week’s Codcast, come to very different conclusions.

Tamer, the Massachusetts state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said the results should be a wake-up call to the state’s education establishment. “It’s deeply concerning to me, and I think it continues to illustrate that Massachusetts is a state that likes to rest on its laurels in terms of being number one, but we know that we’re only number one for some,” said Tamer, a former Boston school committee member. “And so when we look at the results for our Black and Brown students, our students with disabilities, and our English learners, I think that it’s very clear that we’re in a crisis,” she said of the yawning achievement gaps that the scores continue to show. 

Tamer says schools and districts can do more, especially with the millions of dollars of pandemic relief money they have, to address these gaps. 

Schneider, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said it would “make a lot of sense” to hold schools accountable for those gaps “if schools were the primary determinant in student MCAS scores. They’re not. Out-of-school variables are,” he said, pointing to the enormous effects of poverty that schools are asked to overcome.  

In fact, Schneider said, the fact that some groups seem to have suffered even greater learning loss during the pandemic underscores how much out-of-school factors differ for students of different backgrounds. 

He said MCAS scores, which focus on English and math proficiency, should be used to identify where schools need to channel more resources. “But we should not use them in a high-stakes capacity for rendering judgments about schools, because that’s really not what they’re telling us,” he said. “They’re telling us that young people need more support, but they’re not telling us some schools are really great, some schools are really bad, let’s punish the bad ones. That’s just far too simplistic and it ignores everything we know from educational research about these data.” 

The conversation, in many ways, captured the debate that has been underway for years over standardized testing and the state’s accountability system. Tamer thinks it is a valuable approach to holding schools responsible. Schneider, a cofounder of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, which is studying ways to measure schools on a broader range of variables, argues that MCAS largely captures the effect of out-of-school variables and has been used as a blunt – and unfair – instrument to grade school quality. 

While they each represented classic positions in this long-standing, often contentious, debate, Tamer and Schneider both stopped short of accusing the other of holding the most strident views that the opposing sides often cite in their arguments. 

“I’m not saying Mary is doing this, but there are people who are just sitting around blaming schools for not solving poverty, blaming schools for not having remedied everything that happened to young people during the pandemic when there are all of these opportunities for us to meet young people’s needs after school, on the weekends, over the summer,” said Schneider. 

Tamer pointed to her own sister’s experience at Boston’s English High School where, after missing a month of school, no one had contacted Tamer’s family. “I think what we want to ratchet up is our expectations for our students and their ability to achieve and what is required in order for us to see that happen,” said Tamer. “We cannot ignore poverty, but I feel that there’s this feeling that poor children can’t learn. And I don’t necessarily know if that’s what you’re saying, Jack.” 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“That’s not even remotely what I’m saying,” he said. 

They seemed to agree on one point: That K-12 students in the state – especially students of color, those from low-income households, and other marginalized groups – are not getting all they need from schools.