A sign seen last week at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School is ready for students’ return Tuesday. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

As Cambridge students head back to campus Tuesday, beginning high schoolers will be welcomed by a stricter graduation requirement. On Aug. 15, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-3 to raise MCAS scores required for students to get a diploma.

Passing the state standardized exam taken in 10th grade has been a graduation requirement for public school students in Massachusetts since 2003. Under federal law, standardized testing is mandatory, but only 11 states use a standardized test as a requirement for graduation. Students at private schools don’t have similar MCAS requirements.

Beginning with the class of 2026, getting a diploma from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School relies on scoring at least 486 on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System’s English test – up 14 points. For the class of 2031, passing scores for English and math rise to 500. The elevated standards mean roughly 3,300 more students will not pass, the board estimates.

Board member Martin West – citing data from a study by Brown University professor John Papay – said the higher standards will ensure students are ready for college and career success upon graduation. Many closer to the day-to-day experience in schools, including educators, students, parents and district leaders, say it instead feels like a harsh turning of the screw typical of the “test and punish” stance policymakers take toward public education in America.

School Committee member Ayesha Wilson at a January 2020 meeting. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

“To raise scores after having them waived [during Covid] doesn’t make any sense to me,” School Committee member Ayesha Wilson said in an Aug. 22 email. “We don’t have a full picture of the students and, quite frankly, we’re still experiencing tremendous learning loss and playing catch-up.”

Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Education Association, said in an interview that he doesn’t “know why the state wants to do it, honestly, except for pressuring more schools to do more test-preparation. People are going to be focusing more on preparing for the test when they should be preparing for life.”

Cambridge’s Educators of Color Coalition, the Cambridgeport PTO and the Cambridge Families of Color organizations were contacted for comment but did not immediately respond.

In pandemic’s wake

The state decision, under discussion since 2019, was handed down after parents, students and educators spent much of the past two years adjusting to shifting demands of a global pandemic that upended public education, including navigating combinations of in-person, remote and hybrid learning.

Former Cambridge Public Schools teacher and current postdoctoral researcher at MIT Chris Buttimer said he was so surprised by the proposal that, at first glance, he thought it was an Onion article.

“Teachers and students are cooked, they’re exhausted, they’re burnt out. Folks have lost family members. In one of our studies, one of the teachers had lost 11 family members to Covid,” he said. “And then we decide to tighten the screws?”

The state board said it got 229 emails in response to the proposal, with 98 percent opposing the increase. That included a letter from state Sen. Pat Jehlen, who represents part of Cambridge; State Sen. Joanne Comerford; and state Rep. Jim Hawkins. It was signed by 98 state senators and representatives.

“There has been incalculable stress and strain on students, families and educators more acutely felt in marginalized and vulnerable communities,” Comerford said to the board before the vote. “Raising the passing bar now, which is but one measure of high standards, would do more harm to the various students who have already been disproportionately harmed by the Covid pandemic.”

According to board members at their Aug. 15 meeting, no recommendations or feedback from public comment were incorporated into the plan.

Disconnect between board and schools

The overwhelmingly negative response reveals a growing disconnect between those directing state education policy and educators on the ground in schools.

The board is made up of 11 people including the state secretary of education; members are appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker and not required to have any particular expertise in education, but must include among their ranks one member chosen by the Parent Teacher Association, one by the labor council and one by students. The three not chosen by Baker were the members who voted against the proposal.

Cambridge’s public high school, seen Tuesday, is affected by an Aug. 15 state-level vote over standardized testing. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

None of the board members live in Cambridge or Somerville, although three (or 27 percent) live in Newton, which has one of the lowest MCAS failure rates in Massachusetts. At 3 percent, Newton’s failure rate is roughly half that of Cambridge (8 percent) and less than a quarter of Somerville’s (20 percent).

The board is also predominantly white, though according to the state Department of Education, only 55 percent of public school students in Massachusetts and 39 percent of those in Cambridge are.

“The people on the board are not representative at all of the students in our public school systems,” said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, an educational advocacy nonprofit formed in 1982. “How can you have an education board that a) doesn’t have any educators on it and b) gets overwhelmingly unanimous opposition from educators and totally ignore it?”

Issues with standardized testing

Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association, argued before the board that policymakers have “fetishized” standardized tests, placing them at the center of many decisions about schools and students.

Standardized test scores, publicly available on state websites, can signal to some whether a district has “good schools”: They are used to rank schools, to place districts in receiverships, and, on websites such as Zillow, indicate to property buyers where they should look for a home.

Critics say high-stakes testing has been shown to encourage cheating and lead to a narrowing of curriculum, teaching to the test, higher rates of student dropouts and increased segregation, with impacts felt mainly by students in low-income urban districts.

“It’s not that we don’t have years of evidence of what has been the negative impact of putting so much emphasis on standardized test results to make decisions about individual students, teachers, schools and districts,” said Guisbond, who published an analysis of the report by Papay that the board used to justify raising the passing scores. “I don’t know why they keep clinging to the idea that this is the way to improve things or increase equity when the evidence really goes against that.”

The state board’s West called the MCAS one tool for assessing basic literacy and numeracy skills, not all learning. Social-emotional skills, civic participation, ethics and facility with technology, all arguably important for future outcomes, are not assessed.

“What we are doing here is not laying out the comprehensive definition of what it means to be a high school graduate,” he said. “It’s the job of local school districts to offer a more comprehensive definition of what it means to be a high school graduate. It is the job of the BESE to set minimum requirements with respect to basic literacy and numeracy.”

Yet the emphasis on scores as a high school graduation requirement signals that the skills tested by the MCAS matter and others don’t, say Cambridge district leaders.

“We don’t want our students to be good test takers, we want our students to be thoughtful citizens,” Monahan said. “Just because they can pass a test doesn’t mean that they are going to be a great citizen, and just because they can’t pass the test, doesn’t mean that they won’t be.”

What’s being assessed

Questions remain as to how much the test actually assesses learning at all. Research shows a strong relationship between standardized test scores and parental education and income, at both the level of individual families and communities – and higher scores may not signal higher-quality schools, but rather schools that are well resourced and in affluent, white communities.

“Of course, people who had higher MCAS scores have better outcomes,” Guisbond said. “They have better outcomes because of all the things that went into them getting higher scores. That doesn’t meant that if you raise MCAS standards that everyone will make more money. Correlation is not causation.”

Massachusetts, which has a high level of inequalities along income and race, has not been able to close “gaps” in achievement on the MCAS since students began taking it, a concern in Cambridge as well. Many worry that increasing the test’s cut score will increase inequity.

“Since MCAS became a graduation requirement, upward of 52,000 students have reached the end of 12th grade without passing the MCAS exams requisite for graduation,” Comerford said. “Their futures have been foreclosed. The state has chosen to make these individuals pay with their future for historic and systemic shortcomings and failures.”

State board member Darlene Lombos raised concerns about not looking at this decision through an equity lens.

“We have an equity-diversity decision-making tool,” she said before the August vote. “I would love to use it, and in my opinion it is not being used by the board and here. I don’t agree that raising standards has to be pitted against these high-stakes testing.”