Could looming MCAS change be last gasp for ed reform era?

THE STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION seems poised to raise the passing score needed on the high-stakes 10th grade MCAS to graduate from high school. It probably ought to hurry if it wants to get the change on the books. 

A proposal from Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to raise the MCAS bar was scheduled to be discussed and voted on by the board at its June meeting, but the item got postponed, state officials say, because of a jammed meeting agenda. The board typically doesn’t meet in July, but may schedule a meeting for later this month to take up the issue. 

The proposal comes during a time of increasing hostility toward standardized testing, including from the person widely viewed as the state’s likely next governor. The changing of the gubernatorial guard in January will come with sweeping power over education issues, including the appointment of state education board members. 

Attorney General Maura Healey is now the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee and heavy favorite in a general election matchup against either Republican in the race. Late last month, Healey won the endorsement of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and yesterday she rallied in Worcester with MTA president Merrie Najimy, wearing a pin of the National Education Association, the MTA’s national affiliate, as she was presented with a red MTA t-shirt.

Healey vowed to be “the education governor.” She has called for increased mental health services in schools, supported the recent state funding increase for schools, and vowed to boost efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color. Her education platform also voices support for the work of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, in which eight  Massachusetts school districts are exploring, in conjunction with local teachers unions, alternatives to the state’s standardized testing regime. 

“It’s time for Massachusetts to move away from high-stakes, standardized tests and explore alternative measures of student learning and school quality,” the consortium says in a fact-sheet about its work. The MTA favors doing away with the state’s 10th grade MCAS graduation requirement. 

The proposal to raise the 10th grade MCAS math and English scores that are needed to graduate from high school is largely driven by research showing that students who only barely clear the current passing bar lack the skills needed for success in careers or higher education. “There are multiple reasons to set a higher standard,” Riley told state education board members at a meeting this spring where the research was presented. 

Gov. Charlie Baker and his education secretary, Jim Peyser, have been strong supporters of MCAS and other policies ushered in with the 1993 Education Reform Act. 

Board members serve staggered terms that do not necessarily coincide with state elections – with the exception of the education secretary, a voting member of the board. It’s a design intended to give the board some autonomy from the executive branch. But as terms expire, appointments are made by the sitting governor. That means, if Healey is elected, her selections will eventually hold sway over state K-12 education policy.  

State-based high school exit exams are falling out of favor across the country. In New Jersey, one of only 11 states that still require them, according to, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law last week waiving the state’s graduation test for the coming school year because of concerns about pandemic learning loss. But some are pushing further against use of the test, and Murphy himself campaigned for office in 2017 on platform calling for doing away with the requirement altogether.

The proposed MCAS changes would take effect beginning with the graduating class of 2026. State education officials have said they want any changes approved before the school year begins in September so that incoming 9th graders know what the new standard will be that they must meet.

But if Healey is the next governor, it may not be the last word on the issue. 



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