CPS Calls on DESE to Hold 10th Graders Harmless from Flawed MCAS Exam Results

CPS Executive Director Lisa Guisbond’s public comments, delivered at the April 23, 2019 Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Meeting.

An MCAS question on the 10th grade ELA exam caused enough consternation and trauma to students of color (and other students) that some students and teachers courageously spoke up, despite a gag rule put in place to protect the tests, not the students.

Commissioner Riley, to his credit, withdrew the question when it came to light (again, thanks to the students), but more needs to be done.

After all, research shows that when faced with a racially biased question, students of color are likely to be thrown off and do worse on the whole test than they would otherwise have done.

According to the American Psychological Association, researchers Steele, Aronson, and Spencer, found that even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc with test performance. This is known as stereotype threat.

It should not surprise us that, standardized testing, born as a tool of the eugenics movement, still carries that taint and the threat of unjust outcomes based on race and ethnicity. 

Nonetheless, there are three pieces of good news in all of this.

 First, it’s good that this incident has drawn attention to larger issues with the test. It’s a genuine teachable moment about how objectionable questions can slip through, despite the best of intentions and systems.

Second, it’s an opportunity to recognize that the tests have not served as an effective tool for closing either opportunity or test score gaps between affluent white students and students of color.

Third, you, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members, have the power and authority to change things. There is no law, state or federal, requiring Massachusetts to use the MCAS as a graduation requirement.

In fact, Massachusetts is only one of just 12 states that still require students to pass a test to graduate (violating the standards of the measurement profession).

The state should hold students harmless based on this deeply flawed exam. All 10th grade students should be able to graduate based on other requirements, without having to take or retake the exam. Again, you, the BESE, have the authority under the law to do this.