The politics of MCAS 2.0

High-stakes test has little to do with education

EARLY WEDNESDAY MORNING, a Massachusetts teacher posted on social media that she was “thinking about retirement” and “now accepting virtual hugs.” She concluded, “#WorstMCASscoresEver.”

On Tuesday, Massachusetts had released results from the spring administration of MCAS 2.0, the current version of the standardized exam used to judge school quality, identify schools and districts for intervention, and determine who can get a high school diploma.

These latest MCAS results provide context for the teacher’s dismay and point to three deeply troubling conclusions:

First, the Massachusetts school and district accountability system is not helping students, even by its own limited criteria of test scores. The nation is moving away from standardized test scores as the true measure of learning. Massachusetts, for example, is one of just 11 states that still use state tests as a graduation requirement. But here, state education officials hang on.

Second, the decisions about what it means to “meet expectations” or to qualify for a diploma in this state are driven by politics, not educational wisdom or experience. That’s why the same percentage of students qualify for diplomas as last year, even though the test is different and supposedly has higher standards.

Officials know that if they flunk too many students, the whole edifice will come tumbling down. Under the old tests, the standards were “higher” for the elementary grades than for high school for the same reason: The high school test was required for graduation and parents would revolt if the state refused to give diplomas to too many students.

Third, as always, school and district scores reflect income and race, not school quality. Individual students’ scores vary widely, but when they are combined for a whole school or a district, individual differences wash out and what’s left is the fact that wealthier, white students have a consistent advantage – a finger on the scale that makes their schools and districts look good.

Teachers in districts with large numbers of low-income students, English learners, and special needs students know this first-hand, and many are choosing to leave. On Monday, the Framingham Source published a letter from Lisa Zanella, a 32-year veteran Framingham teacher, who said, “I feel like the joy has been taken out of teaching and learning and replaced with standardized lessons, data, programs that are not appropriate for children, and poorly planned professional development.”

Doug Selwyn, an author and retired SUNY Plattsburgh professor of education, reminds us that “the MCAS and other high-stakes tests have little to nothing to do with real education.” He adds: “There is no evidence, no research to suggest that they lead to students being better prepared to live their lives well. High-stakes standardized testing is a farce that came out of the eugenics movement and helps to lock things in as they’ve been, while short-circuiting any efforts to address the underlying issues that are at the heart of the ‘gaps’ – inequality, racism, sexism.”

Since its inception more than 20 years ago, MCAS has failed to make any progress on its primary goal, which was to eliminate achievement gaps by race, income, language, and disability. Why, after more than 20 years of failure, would we keep trying an intervention that merely reinforces false historical beliefs about differences in intelligence by subgroup?

Massachusetts is holding onto a policy based on standardized tests, which were originally developed for racist purposes. It is no wonder, then, that the state has some of the largest gaps in achievement by race, income, language, and disability in the nation. It is time for Massachusetts to join the multiple other states that are exploring alternative ways to assess school quality and student learning in ways that uplift all students, particularly those who have been historically marginalized, and that place a premium on bringing back the natural joy, passion, and curiosity of learning.

Meet the Author

Alain Jehlen

Board member, Citizens for Public Schools
Meet the Author

Lisa Guisbond

Analyst, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
It’s time to get real about school quality and look at what actually happens inside schools, not just scores. The Mass. Consortium for Innovative Educational Assessment’s School Quality Framework is one good model. Others could be developed.

MCAS is so 1993.

Alain Jehlen is a board member and Lisa Guisbond is executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Massachusetts public education advocacy organization.