Should we raise the passing bar for MCAS?

State board to vote on higher graduation test score requirement 

IT HAS STOOD for two decades as the centerpiece of the state’s embrace of the standards and accountability movement in education policy. Since 2003, public school students have been required to pass 10th grade math and English tests as part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in order to graduate from high school. 

In creating a high school exit exam, policymakers sought to establish a uniform academic performance standard across all school districts signaling that students are ready for the post-secondary world of college and career. In the decades before the MCAS requirement, they say, low-income students and those from other marginalized groups, in particular, were often promoted through high school to graduation, but were ill-equipped for the demands of higher education or a changing work world requiring higher skills.

But state education officials now say the MCAS bar is set too low. As evidence, they are highlighting data showing that students who score just over the current MCAS passing line are poorly prepared for post-secondary success.

Next week, the state board of education will take up a proposal from Commissioner Jeff Riley to raise the score needed to graduate. 

The call to raise standards comes at a fraught moment for schools and education policy. Some argue that the idea of public education as a great equalizer of opportunity makes the proposed changes long overdue. But the looming debate and vote of the education board also come amid growing fatigue among many educators over the role of standardized tests and what their emphasis has meant, in particular, for the struggling schools and students the accountability system is most intended to boost. Meanwhile, three years of pandemic disruption to schooling has even some supporters of higher standards questioning whether this is the right moment to raise standards for the high-stakes test. 

The changes, if approved, would take effect beginning with the high school class of 2026 – students who will be entering 9th grade this fall – a schedule that state education officials say is designed to give students, families, and schools time to prepare for the higher passing requirement. 

“There are multiple reasons to set a higher standard,” Riley said at the April board of education meeting. “I think it is critical that we do so, but we have to be thoughtful in the process as to how we do that.”

State education commissioner Jeff Riley. (Photo by Llyr Johansen)

The proposed changes would raise the English language arts score needed to graduate from 472 to 486. The current minimum required math score of 486 would not be changed. A science test requirement, which was added for the class of 2010, will maintain a passing cut-score of 470.

Also starting with the class of 2010, the state created a second pathway to satisfy the MCAS graduation requirement. Under that change, those students scoring below the current passing thresholds on the 10th grade test, but scoring at least 455 in English and 469 in math, can graduate by fulfilling an “educational proficiency plan” that includes completing courses in 11th and 12th grade in subjects where they fell short. Under the proposed changes, students could graduate with an educational proficiency plan if they scored at least 470 in both subjects. 

Under the four MCAS categories, scores less than 470 are considered “not meeting expectations,” while scores from 470 to 499 are deemed “partially meeting expectations.” The proposed changes would therefore let students graduate with an  educational proficiency plan after scoring at the very bottom of the “partially meeting expectations” category, while students could graduate based on their test results alone with scores just over the midpoint of that category. 

The push to raise the passing scores is based largely on analyses of MCAS data by John Papay, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. Papay looked at years of test results and tracked long-term outcomes for those students in higher education and the labor market. 

He found that MCAS scores were closely correlated with those downstream outcomes, with higher scores predicting higher educational attainment and earnings levels at age 30. What state officials view as the call to action in resetting standards was his finding that students who just made it over the MCAS bar had poor outcomes down the road. 

“Students who score near the passing cutoff do not fare particularly well in terms of these long-term outcomes and do not appear to be college- or career-ready, on average,” Papay said in a presentation to the state education board at the April meeting.

Only 5 percent of those who just cleared the passing bar in math went on to obtain a four-year college degree, while their 2019 median earnings at age 30 were less than $40,000 per year, a level below the standard set by MIT researchers as the minimum for a “living wage” in Massachusetts. 

Critics of standardized testing often claim that results simply reflect student demographics and socioeconomic status or the overall characteristics high schools. Papay’s research, however, suggests that MCAS scores reflect students’ academic skills. 

His analyses showed that students with similar demographic characteristics who attended the same high school, for example, had very different long-term outcomes based on their MCAS scores. 

He also compared students who had similar MCAS scores in 8th grade but had different scores by 10th grade. Growth on the MCAS over that interval, he found, predicts higher earnings more than a decade later in adulthood. Among these students, those who went on to score in the 75th percentile of all test takers by the time they reached 10th grade had earnings at age 30 that were about 20 percent higher than those who went on to test at the state average ($64,000 per year vs. $53,000 per year).

The proposal to boost requirements for the 10th grade test is being met with a wide range of opinion, ranging from those who think it goes too far to others who say it doesn’t go far enough. 

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has previously called for ending the MCAS graduation requirement altogether. In public comments submitted on the current proposal, the union’s president, Merrie Najimy, called for maintaining current score requirements for five years. She also called on the state to open up eligibility to meet the alternate graduation requirement via an educational proficiency plan to all students, regardless of their MCAS score. 

Ed Lambert, the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, in contrast, wants the state to raise the standard even higher than what Riley has proposed. “We think it doesn’t go far enough,” he said.

The proposal, as currently drafted, only sets new requirements for the classes of 2026 through 2029. The state education board would have to revisit the issue and establish passing standards for the classes of 2030 and beyond. Lambert said the proposal should instead include provisions that would ratchet up the requirement over several years so that it eventually reaches 500, the minimum score deemed to be “meeting expectations” and performing at grade level. “We don’t think we should stop short of that and have a standard that passes students who only partially meet expectations,” he said. 

State education department officials working under Riley say they want to leave open what the requirements should be starting with the class of 2030 until data are available on how students do following the disruption to learning from the pandemic. But Education Secretary Jim Peyser, in comments at the April education board meeting, sounded sympathetic to the idea of setting an even higher bar for future years.

“I think the issue about what happens in 2030 is a real one,” Peyser said. “The question about where to specifically set the cut score for that date is challenging this far out. I will say by the same token that ‘meeting expectations’ is where we want all students to be eventually. The question is how long is it going to take to get there? My inclination is, if we’re going to put a marker out there, that’s where we should put it.” 

One striking dimension of MCAS data has not received much notice: As many as 30 percent of all students in recent years have satisfied the graduation requirement through an education proficiency plan after their 10th grade MCAS scores fell below the current passing standard. 

“Essentially what the state has done is they have a different standard for a third of students,” said Lambert, who favors eliminating the alternate path. He said allowing it undermines the driving principle of education reform—that schools should bring students of all backgrounds to the level of academic performance needed for today’s world. “What happens now is you water down the standard for certain students, and you say their need for high quality education isn’t as important as it is for others,” said Lambert. “It allows us to conveniently check off the box, but we’re lying to them and their families when we say, ‘you achieve that score and get a high school diploma, then you’re ready for the future,’ when so many of those students aren’t.” 

State education officials acknowledge there has been inadequate oversight of  education proficiency plans, which have lacked rigorous requirements and been largely left to districts to develop. The proposed changes to MCAS score requirements also aim to strengthen the EPP system by requiring a clear plan for the academic support students will get and the courses they’ll be required to take. 

The current EPP system “is not a powerful vehicle for addressing students who need to make continued improvement in their academic performance. It’s much closer to a sort of exercise in paperwork compliance,” said state education board member Martin West at the panel’s April meeting.  

West, who served on an 18-member advisory committee that met over the last two and half years to develop recommendations on revisions to the MCAS standards, said in an interview that the need for change in the alternate system is clear. “My view of the EPP was that it either had to be eliminated altogether or strengthened substantially,” he said. “The commissioner has recommended the latter. I’m inclined to support that.”

Plans to consider raising the MCAS graduation requirement were underway before COVID-19 upended schooling and so much of everyday life. The pandemic delayed action on the issue, and it is also now coloring how some view the proposal to raise MCAS requirements. 

Sue Szachowicz retired in 2013 as principal of Brockton High School. She was a strong supporter of the new standards and accountability ushered in by the 1993 education reform act, and led a determined effort at the school to raise performance levels on the MCAS test. 

Szachowicz was wooed out of retirement last fall to serve for the current school year as deputy superintendent in Brockton, and she was part of the advisory committee the state formed on MCAS. To her, the issue isn’t whether to raise the MCAS test requirement, but whether to do it now, as students and schools are still dealing with the impact of the pandemic. 

“I’m never an excuse-maker,” said Szachowicz. “I think the standard needs to be raised.” But she thinks doing so now for students who will enter high school this fall is a mistake. “The last time they had a normal year of standards-based learning was in the 5th grade. We would sound tone deaf making this recommendation in the midst of what schools are trying to recover from,” she said.  

Sue Szachowicz in the hallway at Brockton High School during her time as principal. (Photo by Frank Curran)

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of Fair Test, a Boston-based organization that has long advocated against reliance on standardized tests, called the proposal to raise MCAS score requirements “totally wrongheaded.” 

“Most of the country is moving in the other direction,” Schaeffer said, pointing to states as different as Georgia and California that have repealed graduation testing requirements. “They do not improve overall academic achievement, nor do they close historic performance gaps between demographic groups,” he said of exit exams.

Those performance gaps were clearly evident in data presented to the state education board by Papay, the Brown University researcher. While low-income students accounted for 30 percent of 10th graders taking the MCAS in 2018, they made up 70 percent of those who failed the English language arts exam on their first try (students can take the test as many as five times). 

But Papay said there is reason to think raising the MCAS bar can lead to higher achievement, pointing to marked performance gains after introduction of the 2003 graduation requirement. “Despite the introduction of the competency requirement, education attainments have increased over time in the Commonwealth, and that’s particularly true of low-income students,” he said. “I think that can make you hopeful that if you raise the standard you can see improvements in response to that.” 

Papay also acknowledged the mixed incentives that can come with high-stakes testing. “As standards get raised, we might expect to see improved instruction,” he said, while students may have “increased motivation to study.” At the same time, he said, “we may also have narrowing of the curriculum to focus on tested subjects.”

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.

West, the state education board member, said the MCAS standards play a critical role, and raising them is warranted, but he said they can’t be the sole focus for schools. 

“We need to be careful not to suggest that a high MCAS score is all you need to succeed in school or life,” said West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Course requirements, being part of a school community, and developing a “work ethic and ability to interact with others in constructive ways” are all important parts of being prepared for post-secondary success, he said. “I think it’s important for those who support a continued role for test scores in the competency determination process to acknowledge that and be very clear that we’re not talking about it as an either-or.”