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 NJ.com, 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. 

MICHAEL JONAS 

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FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

Environmental activists hold protests to urge lawmakers to pass a bold climate change bill. (Patriot Ledger)

A bill to decriminalize all drugs in the state is going nowhere, but the Herald gives some play to the fact that it made it through a few steps of the legislative process before being deep-sixed. 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

New Bedford seeks to offer accidental death benefits to city employees who died of COVID contracted on the job. (Standard-Times)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

A nursing shortage is driving up hospital spending, as hospitals hire more expensive traveling nurses. (Salem News)

ELECTIONS

Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Doughty campaigns on the Cape with a centrist message. “I’d say we speak to the 80 percent that are in the middle. We speak to what’s been called the ‘exhausted middle,’ the people that don’t want to fight, that want a uniter,” Doughty said. (Cape Cod Times)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Stores that cash checks for fees attract low-income individuals, then sell them State Lottery tickets – a practice some say should be outlawed because it preys on people who cannot afford to buy the tickets. (Associated Press)

Cannabis dispensary Green Meadows signs an advertising deal with the Worcester Red Sox that will allow it to place banners around the outside of Polar Park – but not inside because of cannabis regulations. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

The Fall River schools are slated to expand their pre-K programming this fall – but are having trouble nailing down a facility to house the classrooms. (Herald News

TRANSPORTATION

Lynn’s mayor and state rep welcome the MBTA’s decision to replace the city’s commuter rail station but slam the lack of transit alternatives being provided while the work is being done. (Daily Item)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

An effort to complete unfinished testing of rape kits in Bristol County leads to the arrest of a man in connection with a 2012 rape and assault. (Associated Press)

The Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling that threw out Boston’s municipal harbor plan and ordered a redo of the document guiding waterfront development. (Boston Globe

A federal judge threw out 11 of the 14 counts in the lawsuit filed by fired former Boston police commissioner Dennis White against the city. (Boston Herald

MEDIA

Michael McDermott, managing editor of the Providence Journal, will take over as the executive editor of the Telegram & Gazette. (Telegram & Gazette)

Texas news outlets defend their decision to run video of the shooting in Uvalde. (CNN)