Riley: No break from MCAS exams next spring

Some parents shift to private schools with in-person learning


MASSACHUSETTS STUDENTS should expect to take their MCAS exams next spring, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday.

In spring of this year, after schools were abruptly forced to transition to remote learning as COVID-19 cases mounted, state officials suspended the MCAS testing requirement for 2020. A federal decision allowing states to cancel tests if they filed waiver requests facilitated that move.

Addressing the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education ,Riley said the federal government has signaled that similar action will not be coming in 2021.

“We have told superintendents very clearly that we do anticipate administering the MCAS this spring,” Riley said.

Groups including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts backed bills that would impose a longer-term pause on the use of MCAS tests as a graduation requirement. Those bills were effectively killed when the Education Committee included them in study orders.

Board member Matt Hills of Newton predicted “a torrent of advocacy for cancelling or postponing MCAS for a wide range of reasons” as the spring testing period gets closer, but said he believes the test should be administered in 2021 and that state education officials should prepare contingency plans so they are ready to give the test in various scenarios.

“It’s just inconceivable to me that we could consider this year to be anything other than a failed year, as a board, if we go to a second year without our common assessment tool, MCAS,” he said.

Riley also said the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption across the education system could lead to enrollment changes in some school districts.

“We are hearing anecdotally that many parents of kindergarten children, or some parents of kindergarten children, have chosen to keep their kids home for another year and then start kindergarten the year after, so you may see lower kindergarten numbers this year,” Commissioner Jeff Riley said at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting. “We’re also hearing in some communities that some families have chosen to go to private or Catholic school, if that private or Catholic school is opening up full in-person and their district is not.”

District enrollment numbers are based on the student population as of October 1, and Riley said those figures and comparisons to the previous school year will likely be available to discuss at the board’s November meeting.

Also at the November meeting, board members plan to check back in on regulations they approved Tuesday around student learning time. The amended regulations — initially adopted in June on an emergency basis, and later revised after a public comment period — address issues around remote learning and delivering education during a state of emergency.

In keeping with the rules, school districts were directed to prepare plans for three models of instruction for this academic year — in-person with new safety measures, fully remote, and a hybrid of the two.

Local school committees made the choice for how their district would proceed. Baker administration officials have said the decisions should be made based on local public health data, and have been pushing for at least some in-person instruction in communities where the rates of COVID-19 spread are lower.

“At this time we feel like most of our schools should be back in person, to the greatest extent possible,” Riley said.

Andover parent Stephanie Sweet, who addressed the board during its public comment period, said her family is among those pursuing options other than their public schools this year in order to get them into a classroom. She said they are now “spending thousands of dollars a month to send our three kids, ages six and under, to private facilities so that we can access full-time, in-person models for them.”

“The fact that this is our only option is simply unacceptable,” Sweet said.

She said Andover’s nine private kindergartens are fully reopened, and urged education officials to rethink some of their guidance — like rules limiting the number of children who can be transported on one bus — so that it would be easier for areas with low infection rates to bring kids into schools.

Newton resident David Goldstone also voiced dissatisfaction with his city’s decision to keep its high school remote for the time being, with no date set to return to classrooms.

Newton was assigned the moderate-risk “yellow” designation in the Department of Public Health’s most recent muncipal COVID-19 metrics, with an average daily incidence rate of four cases per 100,000 residents. The positivity rate of 0.44 percent was below the statewide 0.85 percent.

Andover’s rate of 3 cases per 100,000 puts that town in the low-risk “green” category, and the test positivity rate there was 0.53 percent.

Goldstone said remote learning leaves students isolated, and they have less homework and an “incomplete curriculum.”

“The schools are abandoning our children,” he said. “Watching these harms inflicted on our daughters is the saddest experience we’ve had as parents.”

Board chair Katherine Craven said she understands the angst parents are experiencing in an unusual school year. Some of her children have in-person learning opportunities and some are engaging in remote schooling, she said.

“Each community is unique in terms of its own data, right, so we know that that’s the case, and it’s also unique in terms of its ability to bargain between its school committee and its teachers,” she said.

Craven said achievement gaps that were present before the COVID crisis are “not going to be improved by this.”

Board member Amanda Fernandez said that in low-income districts that have higher COVID-19 transmission rates and are operating remotely because they cannot open schools, “it’d be good to know where there might be continued disparities in terms of access to technology.”

“It’s not only having access to the Chromebooks, it’s access to the broadband and the broadband that is reliable,” she said. “It is about the training of families and students in how to use the technology.”

Tuesday’s meeting, which was live-streamed, marked the first time the board has convened in person since February, with the past several months of meetings held via videoconference. Board members and department staff, wearing masks, sat at separate tables facing the same direction and spaced apart, in a setup reminiscent of a classroom.