Why we refused to proctor MCAS this year
After challenging pandemic year, state test makes no sense
LAST WEEK, public schools across Massachusetts administered MCAS tests to hundreds of thousands of pandemic-weary students, many of whom only recently returned to the classroom after an unimaginably challenging year. I and more than 50 of my colleagues in Cambridge refused to proctor these tests. We are proud to be conscientious objectors to a policy that harms our students.
Concerns about MCAS were clearly articulated in a letter to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 26. It concludes: “Ultimately, there is no valid purpose for administering MCAS this spring to our students that we are able to present to you — other than the administration of the test will fulfill a perfunctory compliance task that is disruptive and stealing our valuable time away from efforts toward a healthy return, recovery, and acceleration of learning for all.”
Who wrote this letter? Disgruntled teachers and their unions, unwilling to face accountability after a year of disrupted learning? Entitled helicopter parents, pushing obstacles out of the way of their children? Students themselves, grown lazy and gritless from too much Zoom school on the couch?
No, it was signed by 18 urban school superintendents. It came on the heels of a similar letter in February from the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, representing the entire state. Superintendents, like principals, educators, students and their families, recognize that standardized testing this year is expensive, time-consuming and stressful and will not yield valid data. Black and brown students and their schools are at greater risk of being labeled “failing” in a year when their lives — and their education — have been profoundly disrupted.
Despite these concerns, Gov. Charlie Baker has refused to join other states in urging the federal government to cancel testing mandates. Instead, Massachusetts is plowing ahead with a test that has narrowed curricula and widened opportunity gaps. And while the state has suspended the MCAS graduation requirement for two years, that requirement is scheduled to be in force for this year’s sophomores and beyond.
As educators, we have never supported the MCAS testing system. In the superintendents’ letters, it was heartening to hear echoes of our own concerns.
“The argument that the MCAS test is needed to assess learning loss and can be used as a diagnostic is invalid,” the urban superintendents wrote. “Local assessments are more nuanced and are able to truly be diagnostic as [they] determine the learning progressions missing along the way to proficiency on the standard.” We agree! We have more data than we’ve ever had before, and are experts at using assessment to inform instruction.
“[Test] results arrive too late to allow for any effective diagnostic intervention planning to be done for students. The local real time assessments used by districts are far timelier and more usable on behalf of students,” the statewide association noted. Yes again!
Most compelling, the urban superintendents wrote: “Results of the tests will be publicly available — comparisons will be made district to district — and conclusions will be drawn, and stereotypes reinforced about urban schools and urban students,” they wrote. “This is inequity at its most harmful to our next generation.”
We couldn’t agree more. For decades, educators have been highlighting the ways that a public-facing, test-based compliance system serves only to reinforce gaps in opportunity and racist perceptions of our black and brown students.
In an ordinary year, MCAS tests are a great measure of ZIP code and parents’ level of education. This year, they will also measure the quality of students’ Wi-Fi connections, their access to technology, the stability of their housing, and the amount of COVID-related trauma they have endured.
As our superintendents wrote, we are caring right now for a “student population in crisis.” In standing against testing and for deep, authentic, whole-child engagement and connection, we hope to shepherd our students to the other side of this crisis and beyond.
Rose Levine is a fifth-grade teacher at the Graham & Parks School in Cambridge and a member of the Cambridge Education Association. She lives in Cambridge.