Sunday, May 26, 2024

School Committee member Kathleen Kelly, with member Patty Nolan, doesn’t want students opting out of MCAS to face pressure over the decision. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Students opting out of standardized testing got some School Committee support last week, and Cambridge Public Schools Superintendent Kenneth Salim said he is exploring alternatives for the MCAS test, which has a rocky history in the city.

There’s long been a current of opposition to the test in Cambridge, which was among six communities taking part in a 2000 non-binding resolution opposing the test, and the birthplace of FairTest, an organization skeptical of standardized tests.

School Committee members Patty Nolan and Kathleen Kelly presented a motion Tuesday that the district “communicate to principals not to pressure students who choose to opt out” of the state standardized test, MCAS 2.0 – a hybrid with the newer, also controversial Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test.

This gentle motion walked a thin line of “acknowledg[ing] and support[ing] parents and students who take the test and those who do not” and asked that families be informed that opting out “may create accountability consequences for their child’s school and the district.” The motion received support from educators union head Dan Monahan and teacher and parent Mary Elizabeth Cranton, who urged that the city lead in finding alternative assessments.

The motion passed, but only after lengthy discussion during which members Richard Harding and Manikka Bowman worried aloud about the possible negative impact on a school and a district if significant numbers of students opt out. Bowman wanted to “be on the record” that she worries about achievement gaps and is concerned that opting out may “impact the most vulnerable students.”

A recent letter from the state’s education commissioner reiterated that if the participation rate drops to 95 percent, schools are at risk of dropping an accountability level, and at 90 percent, the accountability level will be Level 3 – triggering a warning. In practice, despite a movement among some parents to opt out, no schools in Cambridge have gotten as low as 95 percent participation for at least 10 years, but committee members did not bring it up during discussion.

Salim said he was working with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Assessment in exploring MCAS alternatives.