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Teachers union pushes against MCAS as school exit exam

Tanisha Bhat

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is continuing its push for legislation that would remove MCAS exams as a graduation requirement, end state receiverships of underperforming school districts and implement performance-based assessments.

More than 100 people attended the MTA’s virtual forum on June 5 to discuss the benefits of the legislation, called the Thrive Act. House and Senate versions of the bill are pending before the Joint Education Committee.

Currently, students must pass MCAS exams in English language arts, math, and science and technology to graduate. Three school districts are in receivership  — Lawrence, Holyoke and Southbridge — because their students underperformed on the exams. The legislation would allow districts to adopt their own graduation requirements and methods for determining whether students meet state standards for competency in the three subjects.

“I am also an educator who can no longer continue to be complicit in a system that was not allowing all of my students to thrive and a system that was designed to benefit those who are good test-takers at the expense of those who are not,” Deb McCarthy, the vice president of the MTA, said during the forum.

McCarthy told the Banner prior to the forum that she was a fifth-grade teacher for 25 years before she left her job to focus full time on passing this legislation in the state.

“We became a district where our curriculum focused on the items in a test rather than the depth of the standards that we have from the department of education,” she said. “When I would get the MCAS score, it did not match up accordingly with the skill set that I was seeing in the classroom. So the disconnect, in some cases, was profound.”

Other education advocacy groups have come out in opposition to the bill, citing a possible lack of accountability for school districts and lower value of Massachusetts diplomas.

Erin Cooley, the Massachusetts policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, said although the MCAS is not a perfect exam, it’s a “critical tool” for understanding how students in different school districts are performing.

“We have to know that a Massachusetts diploma actually means something, and if we take away the MCAS as a graduation requirement, we don’t actually have that measure,” she said. “It’s all based on districts, local decisions, and no state standardized measure or state-standardized way that we could say, ‘This is what a Massachusetts diploma actually means.’”

Jack Schneider, a professor of education policy and reform at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, moderated the MTA forum. Other participants included U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York; Wayne Au, a professor of education theory and equity at the University of Washington Bothell; Domingo Morel, a professor of political science at New York University; and three student speakers.

Bowman emphasized the importance of public education as a pillar of healthy democracy and recommended opting out of state standardized tests if possible.

“We need a revolution in public education in America,” Bowman said. “You can’t capture intelligence on a single standardized test, on a multiple-choice test or even on a written exam. Intelligence is infinite, and there are so many pathways that exist in life for our students to show how brilliant they are, how capable they are and most importantly, how creative they are.”

Bowman is the sponsor of the More Teaching Less Testing Act of 2023 in the U.S. House, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Ayanna Pressley. That bill would decrease the federally-mandated frequency of standardized tests administered to students in grades three through 12.

Au discussed the racist and classist origins of standardized testing and its strong correlation with poverty and socioeconomic status. Students from higher socioeconomic statuses tend to perform better on standardized tests, often because their families are able to afford test prep courses.

“We could take a room of 100 students and, without even giving the test, we could create a bell curve,” he said. “If we just knew how much money the families made, the educational level of their parents, we could actually just create our own bell curve and sort everyone based on that without having anyone take the test at all, and we’d be just as accurate in doing that.”

Au added that many outside factors also contribute positively to a student’s performance on a test, such as proper health care, air conditioning in classrooms, green space on school grounds, family housing stability and food security, and even the time of day a test is administered.

Morel spoke about what he called the failures of state receiverships to improve school districts’ performances and how they have negatively impacted minority students.

“It’s not about improving schools. It’s about removing the opposition for those that are trying to move forward a particular agenda,” he said. “That agenda can be charter schools, it can be the removal of certain teachers, removing teachers unions and others.”

The three students who spoke at the forum shared their experiences taking the test and how their classmates reacted to the exam. Angelica Pareja, a junior at Lowell High School, said taking the exam was difficult because English is her second language.

“I started to realize that honestly, the test isn’t fair because Spanish is my first language and English became my second language. And oftentimes, I would have to take longer periods of time answering questions because there were questions that confused me as a student,” Pareja said.