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It’s time to scrap MCAS as a high school exit exam

Jennifer Rose-Wood

Massachusetts is in a minority of states, just eight, that still have a high-stakes test graduation requirement, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. It is time for Massachusetts to join the movement and jettison MCAS in favor of meaningful assessments that are fair, just and improve students’ educational outcomes. As a longtime teacher who has taught in both Boston and the suburbs, I have seen from all sides that MCAS has not equitably served the students of the Commonwealth and actually harms the vulnerable students the test purports to serve.

Years of research have shown that MCAS does not predict academic success after high school, including even a 2015 study by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a prominent supporter of the exam.  Instead of promoting critical thinking, collaboration and complex problem-solving skills that colleges and employers consistently say they value, MCAS values rote learning lacking any kind of cultural relevance or real-world application. An obsessive focus on math and literacy pushes other critical subjects such as science, history and language to the margins. For teachers, the test creates an impossible conundrum: design challenging, culturally relevant and inclusive curriculum that engages the students we serve or teach to a constantly moving target, designed with no students in mind?   

For students here in Boston, the destructive impact of MCAS shows up in real time. During MCAS testing, our most vulnerable students get sick, miss school and cut class in record numbers. They are voting with their feet! Few students appear proud or energized by their performance on the test, and they never ask for their scores.

As a special education-trained teacher who works with a high proportion of multilingual students, it is agonizing to watch my students struggle through tests that do not capture their skills or allow them to demonstrate their learning. Our students know that MCAS is stacked against them: 40% of students with disabilities do not pass the test, and failure rates are even higher for multilingual students.

It is not a secret that schools in wealthy, predominantly white suburbs score higher on MCAS. That’s not because the teachers or students are superior in these towns. It’s because the test advantages a group of students who already possess myriad advantages! I saw first-hand when I taught in Brookline the benefits of small class sizes, highly educated parents, more native English proficiency, more enrichment opportunities and so on. Yet even in this elite environment, inequitable gaps persisted, and my students detested MCAS. It was just one more meaningless hoop to jump through.

In the business world, when an investment keeps producing dismal results, the board of directors disinvests. Yet why do business leaders and charter school advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform keep pushing to pour $30-plus million a year into MCAS?  Is their goal truly to improve teaching and learning for our students? Or is there another agenda at work: one which seeks to privatize a public institution, fill the pockets of shareholders and profit off children?

Why not spend the $30 million to diversify the teaching force? This is an evidence-based practice that significantly improves outcomes for multilingual students and students of color. Or to design career-integrated curricula aligned with job-rich industries in the state? This is another evidence-based practice that particularly benefits special needs students on individualized education plans (IEPs). Why not spend the $30 million to build partnerships between universities and public schools, in order to grow and support initiatives like these, as well as promote innovation in both sectors?

MCAS has never met the goal it was originally designed for — boosting achievement levels of vulnerable groups of students. There are no data that demonstrate that this non-curriculum-aligned, non-teacher-designed, non-culturally responsive test has improved learning outcomes for multilingual learners, students on IEPs, or Black and brown students. It is past due for this flawed, biased test to be retired, and for time, money and expertise to be invested in more equitable and evidence-based practices.

Jennifer Rose-Wood, currently a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, has 24 years of classroom experience.