Some teachers opt out of administering MCAS
Debate rages over pandemic-year standardized tests
AMID A STATEWIDE DEBATE over whether to require students to take standardized tests this year, advocacy groups have been urging families to opt out. Now, a small number of teachers are taking a new tactic: opting out themselves.
“I just couldn’t in good conscience participate in a system that was causing more trauma to students during an already traumatic time,” said Deb McCarthy, a fifth-grade teacher in Hull who refused to administer the MCAS this year.
While students in elementary and middle school can skip taking the MCAS without ramifications, teachers do not have the same option. Refusing to proctor the test can open them up to discipline. Even so, the tactic is being tried by McCarthy, and by a group of 50 teachers in Cambridge.
The teachers’ refusal is part of a raging debate over whether the MCAS should be given at all this year. Opponents say the test will do more harm than good in a year when many students are just returning to school in person after a year of interrupted learning due to COVID-19. But the test’s supporters say it is necessary to measure learning loss.
“It’s one thing if parents and families decide they don’t want kids to participate,” Rodrigues added. “Educators don’t get to make that decision for parents and families.”
McCarthy, who works at Lillian M. Jacobs Elementary School and has taught fifth grade for 25 years, is a long-time critic of the MCAS. A lifelong Hull resident, McCarthy graduated from Hull public schools, her mother taught in the school system, her four children graduated from there, and her two grandchildren are current students. She argues that a focus on preparing for the MCAS has led the district to shed activities that “teach to the whole child.” She blames the need to teach to the test for the loss of a band program, a librarian, a health teacher, and buses for after-school enrichment programs. Over the years, she said she has seen students harm themselves, citing the stress of standardized tests.
McCarthy first tried refusing to administer the test as a “conscientious objector” in 2017. But she was threatened with discipline, up to the possible loss of her job, and gave in. This year, after Hull’s teachers’ union and school committee voted to oppose administering the MCAS, she said the conversation had changed, so she tried again. “I’m really hoping this time around that the conversation and the movement changes and that we really look at a system that teaches to the whole child and isn’t about punishing students during a pandemic,” McCarthy said.
The Hull superintendent’s office did not return a request for comment. McCarthy was put on paid administrative leave for the two days that she refused to proctor the test, and she said nothing has been told to her yet about further discipline.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents all opposed requiring the MCAS this year, suggesting that local diagnostic tools would be more effective in determining learning loss. The organizations cite concerns about students’ mental health and about the loss of learning time in an already truncated year.
But the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, citing requirements from the federal government, decided to require it. DESE has said it will not penalize schools and districts based on the results, and the test will not be a graduation requirement for this year’s 11th graders. It also provided new flexibility in terms of timing and in shortening the test.
A spokesperson for DESE declined to comment on teachers refusing to administer the test, pointing to DESE guidance released in April, which states: “While recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility, the Department maintains that the MCAS test is a crucial diagnostic tool to promote student success and educational equity.”
The union wrote that over 90 percent of its educators, in a survey, voiced support for cancelling this year’s MCAS, noting that students are struggling with mental health issues and trying to regain some sense of normalcy. “While each educator will make individual choices about how they express this opposition, we aim to move forward in solidarity with each other and against this harmful test,” the letter wrote.
Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Education Association, said teachers are worried about the anxiety the test creates among students who are already struggling with the pandemic’s effects. The MCAS data will also have limited usefulness since the results will not be released until next fall. He said the union had been informing parents that they had a choice to opt out, but some educators “felt they had to take a stronger stand.”
Cambridge superintendent Kenneth Salim said in a statement that through organizations of school superintendents and urban superintendents, he had voiced his disagreement with the state’s decision to require the MCAS this spring. But after DESE made its decision, Cambridge moved forward to implement the law. “As I have shared with families, our goal has been to make MCAS as minimally disruptive to students so that we can focus the precious time that we have with students on rigorous, joyful and culturally responsive learning,” Salim wrote.
Salim wrote that there will be no negative impact on students who opt out of the MCAS. But teachers have an obligation to administer the test, he said, and “any educators who fail to fulfill their duties may be subject to disciplinary consequences.”
Monahan said so far nobody has been disciplined. Both Salim and Monahan said the refusals have not impacted districts’ abilities to offer the test, since principals have been able to find other teachers to proctor them.
The debate over the MCAS is also playing into the larger national dialogue about racism. Monahan called the test “rooted in racism.” McCarthy said the test has been “used to weaponize students around race and class” and “was not measuring anything beyond an opportunity gap.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association wrote in an email to its supporters that the MCAS “is mostly a measure of students’ race, what language is spoken at home, and family income levels.”
The MTA points to an essay by Ibram Kendi, director and founder of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, which argues that the whole concept of an achievement gap – defined by disparate performances between white and black students on standardized test scores – is a racist concept, based on a method of measuring intelligence that favors whites.
Yet supporters of the test note that Massachusetts’ entire education reform movement, which established statewide standards, testing, and accountability through a 1993 law, was meant to help low-performing, often minority, students by ensuring that all students have the opportunity to receive an adequate education.
In an interview in March, Rodrigues said the data the state gets from the MCAS ensures that schools are held responsible for improving the performance of minority students. “If I don’t have data, I can’t hold generationally institutionally racist systems accountable,” she said.
With black and Latino students having been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, Rodrigues said in an interview Monday that MCAS data is necessary to understand what learning has been lost and what steps need to be taken to recover. “If I’m a parent in Cambridge, if I’m a parent in Hull, I’d be furious because you’re taking my right away from me to determine what kind of unfinished learning my child’s suffered during the pandemic, and how can I help my child,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues said it short-changes children if they are not expected to achieve proficiency in education. “A tool like MCAS doesn’t create inequity, it reveals it,” Rodrigues said. “Once it’s revealed, we can take the steps we need to take to fix the inequities.”