Time to end the state’s ‘test and punish’ accountability system

MCAS graduation exam, state receivership should be scrapped

ALL STUDENTS, not only the most privileged, need and deserve an education that provides the knowledge and skills most needed in today’s global, diverse, and technological world. Massachusetts should be providing a balanced curriculum that includes project-based learning, the arts, world languages, history and social studies, internships, and other electives that help prepare students for college, career, and life.

But our current MCAS-driven assessment and accountability system, instead of promoting such an education, has become a barrier to opportunity for too many students. A new bill called the Thrive Act would take down some of these barriers.

MCAS became a high school graduation requirement in 2003. Over the past 20 years, the policy has harmed students who have been denied diplomas and has failed to address inequities in academic outcomes by race, income, language, and disability.

Thanks to funding increases, the state’s high school graduation rate rose for all student subgroups between 1993 and 2003. However, since the graduation requirement took effect in 2003, achievement gaps by race, income, language, and disability have essentially remained the same for both MCAS and National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, as well as high school graduation and college-going rates.

However, with the MCAS graduation requirement on hold during three pandemic years, graduation rates rose and disparities were reduced for Black, Latinx, low-income, and English learner students, as well as students with disabilities. Gains for English learners were four times that of the total population, as they were relieved of having to take a high-stakes test in English when they were not yet academically English-proficient.

The graduation test has failed because it does not address the factors that cause opportunity gaps: the long-term underinvestment in the schools and other essential services that could effectively level the playing field, and the use of a standardized test that does not accurately assess the knowledge and skills students need to participate in college, career, and civic life. It’s time to abandon a graduation requirement that inflicts significant harm on our students.

The Thrive Act has three main parts:

1. It will replace the failed MCAS graduation requirement. Students will still take the MCAS, but they won’t need a passing grade to graduate. Instead, schools will certify a student for graduation if they demonstrate a mastery of the skills and knowledge required by state standards.

2. The state will no longer take over schools in the lowest performing schools/districts. Instead, the school district will create a local group, including school officials, educators, and parents, which will develop an improvement plan.

3. It will establish a commission to study the effects of the current school and district accountability system and make recommendations to the legislature for a better approach. (This could include recommended changes to the federal law.)

Besides Massachusetts, only seven other states still require students to pass exit exams to graduate, down from a high of 27 in the early 2000s. Why are so many abandoning this policy?

One reason is these tests measure a narrow range of academic skills, but tell very little about a student’s ability to apply knowledge to real-world situations. They also ignore the important personal and interpersonal skills that adults need for success in college, career, and living in a democratic society. Parents, educators, and business leaders agree that standardized tests get far too much attention in our schools. But schools focus on these scores because the state gives them so much importance.

Other states recognize that exit exams disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, and low-income students, as well as English language learners and those with learning disabilities, blocking their ability to graduate from high school—a key credential in American life. At the same time, policymakers have come to realize that exit exams do not create better educational outcomes. Standardized tests of academic performance are a poor measure of the skills and knowledge graduates need to function in the modern workforce and citizenry.

The Thrive Act would also eliminate the state’s failed state takeover policy, in place since the 2010 Achievement Gap law. The hope was that state takeover would lead to dramatic improvements for students in districts deemed to be underperforming, based on MCAS results. In fact, the opposite has happened. Districts that the state is operating are now ranked among the lowest performing districts in the state  –  by the state’s own measures.

Takeovers have led to low morale, high educator turnover, and a failure to give students the opportunities to thrive that they deserve. Receivership also undermines local democratic control of schools and deprives students of a broad, engaging curriculum.

Better ways to improve schools and student learning are grounded in community-based efforts – not state takeovers or private partnerships – using holistic, wraparound services to support schools that face multiple challenges. California, for example, rejected the test-and-punish approach embodied in the No Child Left Behind law and focused on collaborating with local community members to identify local priorities and needs. A similar approach, known as the community schools model, tackles school improvement by empowering students and educators and partnering with local community organizations to address students’ academic, mental health and other needs.

Lisa Guisbond is executive director of Citizens for Public Schools. This essay is adapted from a report by CPS and FairTest called Lessons Learned: After 25 years of test-and-punish accountability, it’s time to end the misuse of tests and help all our students to Thrive.