A pandemic is wrong time to dump MCAS

IN AN ERA of heightened partisan divide, it is heartening to see our Democratic President and our Republican Governor in alignment on whether it is essential that children be tested this spring to measure the pandemic’s impact on students’ academic performance.

The Biden administration recently announced that state education departments would have flexibility surrounding standardized testing this year but would not have the authority to cancel them altogether. This is consistent with the Baker administration’s plan to administer a modified version of MCAS tests this spring. Both also agree that these tests should not be used to rate school or district performance.

The logistics of administering a statewide test need to be determined, but the fact remains we need reliable data from a common, objective assessment to measure whether or not students are on track and on grade level. Without diagnostic data, how will parents, teachers, schools, and districts craft effective strategies to help students recover from the pandemic’s effects? Information from MCAS is also vital to understanding the extent to which pandemic-induced learning loss has disproportionately affected students by race, socio-economic status, and disability.

Despite the urgency, longtime opponents to standardized testing are trying to exploit the chaos of the past year to halt the administration of the MCAS this spring. Once again, numerous bills have been filed on Beacon Hill that would establish a “temporary” moratorium on statewide standardized assessments, with the real intention of upending the state’s accountability system. Thankfully, President Biden has halted this misguided effort to leverage the pandemic to achieve aims that are harmful to children

Annual standardized statewide assessments provide comparable, reliable data about student learning that ensures all students – especially underserved students – have access to a high-quality education consistent with the state’s academic standards.

It is imperative that we measure how much wider the achievement gap has grown since March 2020. Data from MCAS are the only consistent and objective source of information we have about disparities in educational outcomes and form the factual basis for actions that lead to greater equity in resource allocation to schools. Without this data, Massachusetts could easily return to the days where historically underserved students were pushed aside and forgotten.

Before learning standards and MCAS were established as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act, every district set its own expectations, with some setting them high and others setting them too low. This led to gross inequities in opportunity and wide gaps in student achievement. Low-income students and students of color in particular were graduating high school unprepared for college or to enter the workforce. To remedy this inequality, the state sets academic standards that all students are expected to meet, and MCAS is used as a common measure of academic achievement. This ensures that the same bar for learning is set for every student, in every school across the state.

Initial studies have already shown that long-standing opportunity gaps for students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, students with disabilities, and other historically underserved students have been widened by the pandemic.

Statewide MCAS data from 2019 show that black and Latino students were already far behind their white peers before the pandemic. For example, the assessment shows only 33 percent of black/Latino children in grades 3-8 were performing at grade level in English compared to 59 percent among white kids and only 29 percent in math compared to 56 percent among white kids. Among 10th graders, only 38 percent were performing at grade level in English compared to 69 percent of white kids and 34 percent in math compared to 67 percent of white kids.

This achievement gap in Springfield was even wider: 28 percent of black/Latino children in grades 3-8 performed at grade level in English and only 23 percent in math. Only 28 percent of black and Latino students in grade 10 were performing at grade level in English and just 21 percent in math.

Meet the Author
A pandemic is the wrong time to discard these crucial assessments. In fact, the pandemic makes them more important than ever. Information from the MCAS will not only be critical to parents as they work to support their children’s academic recovery, but it will also play an important role in advancing educational equity in the upcoming school year.

Henry Thomas III is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield, Inc., and was a longtime member and chairman of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees.