A brief history of the MCAS

MCAS came to our schools as a result of 1993 MA ed reform act.  The law has been credited with bringing standards, testing, and charter schools, also with making MA no 1 among the states on a national test.

This narrative is flawed on two counts.

First, the impetus for the law was really the state’s vastly inequitable school funding, which prompted a lawsuit brought by low-income districts. (Brookline named in the lawsuit to exemplify how rich in resources some districts were compared with others, for instance, Brockton and Lowell.) The law created a funding formula to level the playing field, which is now once again unequal and inadequate, according to the 2015 state Foundation Budget Review Commission.

Second, the idea that standards and testing made MA number 1 is belied by the fact that MA was long at or near the top on the longstanding national test known as NAEP, before the MCAS and state standards came along. This was mostly because we have a relatively affluent and educated state, two things that are closely linked to test results.

In the late 1990s, I was a concerned Brookline parent of a child on an IEP, and I became worried when I read about the impending MCAS graduation requirement. I helped start a local group, Brookline CARE, that was part of a statewide organization that fought to keep the MCAS from being used as a graduation requirement. We had active chapters all around the state, with many parents, teachers and students involved.=

Note that CARE and CPS and other allied groups are not against testing itself, but the overuse and misuse of such tests.

Our local Brookline group held a sold-out forum at Lincoln, with a panel that included the late Jack Rennie. Rennie was a prime mover and shaker behind education reform. He told the large crowd that he and his colleagues never intended the MCAS to be a graduation requirement.

Others have described what was essentially a coup d’etat on the state BOE, with the board reconfigured and populated with testing proponents who decided to impose the high school grad requirement.

The state education Commissioner at the time, David Driscoll, was quoted saying that our movement nearly stopped the graduation requirement from going into effect, but with some hardball tactics and threats, they prevailed and imposed the requirement.

Erica Richmond, the daughter of BSC member Suzanne F., was one of a group of BHS students who boycotted the MCAS the first year it counted for high school graduation (2003) on ethical and moral grounds. She was denied a diploma but graduated from Clark U. and is now a hospital chaplain in CT. (Just saying….)

My older son opted out of the MCAS, before No Child Left Behind, with no negative consequences, either at the time or later on in his educational career, which took him to Bard College. He now works at his old K-8 with students on IEPs!

Then MCAS tests became the tool for enforcing the 2001 NCLB law.

Many people, including me, predicted that NCLB was unworkable, would fail, would harm education overall and would especially harm students with disabilities, low income students, ELLs, students of color, that it would not close gaps in achievement.

This prediction came to pass, until the law described by one of its authors, CA Sen. George Miller, as “the most tainted brand in America.”

In MA, former Secretary of Education Paul Reville (another Brookline resident) has said that while he saw some successes, “overall, we have failed to achieve equity, we have failed to eliminate persistent achievement and success gaps.”

Others note that the harm was greatest to the most vulnerable students, which goes against the claim you may have heard that we needed and still need the tests as tools to close the achievement gap. 

In his new book, “The Testing Charade,” Harvard Professor and testing expert Daniel Koretz argues that federal education policy over the last couple of decades has been a barely mitigated disaster.  

Now we have a “new and improved” MCAS 2.O and the state has proposed a tweaked and updated state accountability system, which is if anything more opaque and confusing than the current system. But the essential approach remains in place, with the harm to our students, our teachers and our schools/community.

MCAS 2.0 emerged out of the common core-based PARCC test. When the state secretary of education, Jim Peyser, commissioned a study to see which test, the new or the old, did a better job of preparing students for college, it turned out they were equally bad, with neither doing any better than predicting 5% to 18% of the variation in first-year college grades. 

I just want to leave you with encouraging news. Some in other districts and states have recognized that high-stakes standardized testing is not the way to go and they are reducing testing and lowering the stakes, to the extent feasible under federal and state law. There’s been a trend toward dropping the use of state tests to determine HS grad, and now MA is in the minority of states that still do this. Just 13 now use their state test as a high school graduation requirement, down from 26. Another welcome trend is more and more colleges are deemphasizing college admissions tests, with more than 1,000 test-optional schools. 

Our other speakers will speak to the ongoing harm of the MCAS and encourage you to join with others to speak out and act out against a system that we seem to be continuing out of inertia more than any thoughtful appraisal of what has worked or what has failed.