State education board raises MCAS graduation requirements
New standards, opposed by teachers unions and almost 100 legislators, take effect with class of 2026
MASSACHUSETTS HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS will soon have to clear a higher bar on the 10th grade MCAS in order to graduate. The state board of education approved changes on Monday that will increase the passing score needed on the test starting with the class of 2026.
The 8-3 vote of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education came in the face of more than 200 public comments submitted since April, almost all of them opposed to the changes, and a letter signed by nearly 100 state legislators urging the board to reject the proposal. Both of the state’s two statewide teachers unions were also against the proposal.
The lawmakers wrote that raising the minimum score needed to graduate will be most harmful to students who were disproportionately harmed by COVID-19 pandemic, including those with disabilities, English learners, and Black and Latino students. “If the state’s goal is racial and social equity, this is the wrong way to go,” they wrote.
But education board members supporting the change in the so-called “competency determination” said it was important to raise the passing standards precisely because the state otherwise is not adequately educating those same marginalized students.
Starting with the class of 2003, students in Massachusetts have had to pass the MCAS to graduate from high school. The graduation requirement was put in place as part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which funneled millions of dollars in new state aid to poorer school districts while establishing a new system of education standards and accountability.
Under the changes approved by the board, students entering 9th grade this fall will have to score at least 486 on the English language arts test, up from the current passing score of 472. The current minimum required math score of 486 will not change. The new required scores fall just beyond the midpoint of “partially meets expectations,” the next to last of four categories. The minimum passing score on the science test of 470 will not change.
More than a decade ago, starting with the class of 2010, the state created a second pathway to satisfy the MCAS graduation requirement. Under that change, students scoring below the current passing thresholds, but scoring at least 455 in English and 469 in math, can graduate by following an “educational proficiency plan” that includes completing courses in 11th and 12th grade in subjects where they fell short. The changes approved by the board will raise to 470 the minimum score needed to graduate with an educational proficiency plan.
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 board also approved a set of new regulations governing educational proficiency plans used by districts. As many as 30 percent of all students have met the state graduation requirement in recent years under this alternative pathway, and state officials say it has not had sufficient oversight or support.
The proposal by Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to raise the minimum MCAS passing score was based on research led by John Papay, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. Papay examined years of MCAS scores and long-term educational and earnings outcomes of students and found that students just clearing the current MCAS minimum passing scores were not well-prepared for college or for success in the workplace.
“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 its April meeting.
His research also compared students with similar scores in 8th grade and found that those who made bigger gains by 10th grade had better outcomes as adults, suggesting a long-term impact of learning gains in the first years of high school.
Papay found that only 5 percent of students who just made it over the passing bar in math went on to receive a four-year college degree. Meanwhile, 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.
The state education board went even further than Riley had proposed, adopting an amendment from board member Martin West to extend the new score requirements one additional year, to the class of 2030, and to raise the score requirement for English and math starting with the class of 2031 to 500, the bottom of the “meets expectations” category. There will be no change in the score needed to satisfy the graduation requirement through an educational proficiency plan.
In discussion before the vote, there was little common ground among board members on opposite sides of the issue.
Mary Ann Stewart, who voted against the change along with Darlene Lombos and the board’s new student representative, Eric Plankey, said the state will face an “insurmountable equity problem as a result of raising these scores.”
“How do we even claim [we’re assessing] competency when it’s determined by one single test,” said Stewart. “We’re going further down a hole that is more and more narrow to make it even harder for historically marginalized groups.”Matt Hills, a board member supporting the changes, pointed to the analyses showing a strong correlation between scores and longer-term life outcomes. Ignoring those findings and criticizing the role of testing does a “disservice to the students we are purporting to help,” he said. “It may be in some quarters good politics, but I think it’s really bad policy on our part to say this stuff just doesn’t matter.”
Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, spoke in scathing terms about the testing system introduced with passage of the 1993 education reform law, referring to it as the “MCAS hunger games.” He said he had no doubt that the board would approve the changes, but seemed to be holding out hope that the looming change in administrations would bring a change in the MCAS policy. Page said he and the state’s largest teachers union were waiting to see the current board replaced with new members “who will reverse this two decades-long travesty.”