English Learners’ High School Graduation Rate Drops with the Reinstatement of the MCAS Graduation Requirement

From 2022 to 2023, the four-year high school graduation rate for Massachusetts English Learners declined 5.8 percentage points (from 73.1% to 67.3%), according to a Citizens for Public Schools analysis. This was the largest decline ever recorded for English learners with the current method of calculating graduation rates.* In 2023, the MCAS graduation requirement was reinstated after a three-year suspension because of the pandemic. 

The suspension and reinstatement provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the impact of the MCAS graduation tests, especially on vulnerable student subgroups such as English learners. 

During the three-year suspension, impressive gains were made in graduation rates, particularly among students who disproportionately fail the MCAS. For example, graduation rates for Black students rose 6.3%, Latinx students rose 6.8%, low-income students rose 4.7%, students with disabilities rose 4.1%, and English learners rose 8.5%. Contrast this with White students’ graduation rate gain of only 0.5%. In other words, the pause in the MCAS graduation requirement coincided with dramatic increases in the graduation rates of historically underserved students. 

Some of the same student groups with the greatest gains during the suspension of the MCAS graduation requirements showed the steepest declines in their graduation rates from 2022 to 2023. In addition to the drop for English learners, graduation rates dropped for Latinx students (from 81.2% to 78.9%) and students with disabilities (from 78.0% to 76.4%). The overall four-year graduation rate in Massachusetts dropped from 90.1% to 89.2%. All these declines were the largest on record with the current method of calculating graduation rates.


However, this story is not over. The MCAS continues to be a headwind to improving our graduation rates. Only two (English and math) of the three high school MCAS tests were required for a diploma in 2023. This spring students were also required to pass the MCAS science exam. Furthermore, in 2026 students will need to score significantly higher on the English MCAS test in order to graduate.

Each of these coming changes might suppress graduation rates even further, disproportionately for English learners, Latinx and students with disabilities.

Massachusetts voters would do well to consider these data if they have the choice in November to support a ballot question that would eliminate the MCAS graduation test requirement. Instead of the MCAS exams, the proposed law would require the student to complete coursework certified by the student’s district as demonstrating mastery of the competencies contained in the state academic standards.

The proposed ballot question gives Massachusetts voters the opportunity to free our students from an antiquated and harmful policy that 41 out of 50 states have already put in the rear view mirror. 

*The current method of calculating high school graduation rates, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, was first used in Massachusetts in 2006.

Cohort 2023 Graduation Rates -Massachusetts (00000000)
Graduation Rates – Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education