Riley pushes lower-stakes MCAS test

Results will be used primarily for diagnostic purposes, he says


THIS YEAR’S MCAS exams will be conducted this spring but will feature “significantly” reduced testing time for third through eighth graders and no schools will be newly named underperforming in the upcoming school year, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley told superintendents in a memo Tuesday.

“The sudden shift to remote learning last spring, and the continuation of hybrid/remote learning this school year has likely led to significant learning loss for students around the country. The extent of the learning loss in the Commonwealth is not yet known,” Riley wrote. “The Department continues to believe the MCAS test is a crucial diagnostic tool to promote student success and educational equity and we remain committed to administering the assessment this spring, while recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility.”

Riley’s memo cited a national study from McKinsey & Co., which he said “estimates the shift to remote learning in spring 2020 set back all students’ academic progress by months.”

Riley said in a phone interview that the MCAS tests present the first opportunity to obtain data measuring “where the holes are,” and that education officials frequently hear from parents concerned about how the pandemic has affected their child’s learning.

“My focus is primarily on using the data to assess where our kids are and what gaps have been created and how we can fix them,” he said.

Testing sessions will be reduced by about half for students in third to eighth grades, Riley said. The memo says those students will be tested “through a session sampling approach, in which each student will take only a portion of each MCAS assessment in each subject.”

Riley plans to recommend to the board that seniors in the class of 2021 who have not yet earned a sufficient score on the math or English MCAS to graduate — about 97 percent have already done so, he said — be able to meet the requirement by instead “passing an approved course and demonstrating competency in that subject in lieu of a qualifying MCAS score.”

The changes to the standardized tests come after state education officials in 2020 sought and received a federal waiver and legislative authorization to cancel MCAS testing for that spring, as early spread of COVID-19 forced an abrupt transition to remote learning across Massachusetts schools.

Riley said  education officials thought canceling the test last year was “the practical thing to do” and that the changes announced Tuesday — slated to come before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at a January 26 meeting — are also rooted in an attempt to “take a practical approach towards assessment.”

“We recognize the challenge that everyone’s going through at this time,” he said. “Our hope is that we’ll have more kids back in school more robustly in the spring, but obviously that’s something we’ll continue to monitor. We feel like the crucial part of this is we have to have the data for diagnostic purposes.”

Other changes include extending the testing window for ACCESS English language proficiency exams and granting districts flexibility in scheduling high school biology MCAS exams.

Throughout the fall, as students embarked on a school year featuring various forms of remote, hybrid, and in-person learning, Riley and Education Secretary James Peyser described it as important to administer the tests in 2021 as a way to capture data on learning loss.

Teachers unions and some lawmakers have been calling for the tests to be canceled again this year, citing the stress students have faced in a year of upheaval and the fact that some students, particularly in urban districts, have not returned to classrooms.

“During a time of public health crisis, our time and our resources should be spent teaching and supporting our students and not administering standardized tests,” Malden Education Association President Deb Gesualdo told the education board at a December 15 meeting. “Teachers across the Commonwealth already know who’s falling behind based on daily interactions with students, assessments, and conversations with their families. It’s no secret which communities are being hit hardest during this crisis — it’s the districts serving the highest numbers of low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities. What our school communities want from [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] is a plan regarding what to do to help these students, not another test that will simply pile on to their stress and take away from teaching and learning time.”

When the Senate debated its version of the state budget in November, Sen. Jo Comerford offered and then withdrew an amendment that would have directed Riley to seek a federal waiver from federal testing requirements for this school year so that the MCAS test could be skipped for a second year. Sen. Patricia Jehlen wrote in a November 24 email newsletter that the MCAS amendment “was among those not taken up because it was a policy issue, but I expect it will be filed again as a bill next session, and I expect to support it.”

The new legislative session begins Wednesday.

Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts praised Riley’s plans, which the group’s state director, Liam Kerr, said “commit to maintaining MCAS as the state’s best tool for measuring learning loss while acknowledging the need for accountability relief in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Ed Lambert said information from the 2021 MCAS “will be critical to parents as they work to support their children’s recovery from the pandemic” and will help “determine resource needs for schools and districts as they work to address learning loss in the months and years to come.”

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The group Citizens for Public Schools urged education officials to “take another giant leap toward the real world” by canceling the tests and to “ask educators how the state can help, instead of documenting what everyone already knows.” The group said more money from the state “for everything from air filters to contact tracing to full funding” of the 2019 school finance reform law would help schools.

Legislative leaders and the Baker administration are negotiating a tax revenue estimate for the fiscal 2022 budget, which will determine whether the state will get back on track toward funding the 2019 law. Baker’s annual budget proposal is due to be released later this month.