Friday, June 21, 2024

MCAS season is upon us. Beginning this week, our schools will be turned into testing sites for students in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th grades. Children will be tested in English-language arts, math and science (in fifth, eighth and high school). If students do not pass the English-language arts and math portions in high school, they will be denied a diploma even if they’ve met all the other requirements for graduation. The stress of MCAS season transforms classrooms from places where students investigate, solve problems and learn to think critically into places in which “teaching to the test” is extolled.

For years, we have been told that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System will “hold schools accountable,” and help close the “achievement gap” for struggling students, especially students with individualized education plans, English-language learners, students of color and students with family members unable to complete their own education because they had to work for a living.

Increasingly, the practice of using standardized tests for measuring what students know is being questioned. Massachusetts is one of only eight states in the nation that uses high-stakes testing to determine whether a student can graduate from high school.

Has MCAS made schools more equitable? Are all our children achieving at high levels? Are more students “college and career ready?” No. What MCAS has done is to transform our schools into places of stress, standardization (not standards) and increasing rigidity. And most alarming, it has denied thousands of students a high school diploma.

What educators say

A Cambridge Public School retiree with 35 years of teaching experience writes of the harm caused by high-stakes tests to “children with learning differences, children whose cultural and/or social-economic identities did not match those of the test creators, children who were already ‘left behind’ through no fault of their own.” She says the information on tests “contains a mere snapshot of a person on a particular day at a particular hour, and not other capabilities of that child that could help them work through a problem and achieve a task.”

Karen Engels, Dan Monahan and Betsy Preval wrote in a previous essay, “High-stakes testing distracts us from teaching and learning. It’s hard to overstate the impact high-stakes testing has on an entire school building for seven or eight weeks. Computers are repurposed for testing use only. Teachers whose primary role is supporting high-need students become test proctors for weeks on end, and their services to children are put on hold. At best, the momentum of curriculum is choppy and fragmented; at worst, curriculum stops completely.” (“Why we oppose MCAS 2.0,” Oct. 14, 2017).

Early childhood educators are seeing the direct impact of high-stakes testing on the youngest learners. According to Sally Benbasset, a former kindergarten teacher, “Children learn and develop through active engagement with other people and their environment. But the prevalence of standardized testing in our schools has forced teachers, even at the primary level, to focus their teaching on what can be scored. Mastery of basic and discrete skills has become the primary goal instead of exploring, thinking and problem-solving.”

Noted scholar Ibram X. Kendi wrote “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and brown minds and legally exclude their bodies … From the beginning, the tests, not the people, have always been the racial problem.”

Columbia University professor Bettina Love argues for the elimination of high-stakes testing. Students Deserve, the website of a Los Angeles organization of parents, teachers and students, urges educational institutions to “Reduce unnecessary testing and detach high stakes from standardized testing. The purpose of tests should be to help students, families, and educators to figure out what students know and how to move forward – not to punish students or schools.”

What parents say

Here are some comments from parents about the impact of the MCAS on their children:

A parent of high school students: “Every time spring arrives, my children know that it’s MCAS time. This is the time when they have chronic headaches, start acting out in school and at home and their stress levels increase.”

A parent of a student with special needs: “Not only does this take away significant time from her IEP goals, but the tests and resulting data have no valid connection to the learning standards they are allegedly measuring.”

The parent of an 8-year-old, testifying before a state hearing on the MCAS: “Listen to parents who see their kids crumbling under the pressure and know this will affect their attitude toward learning for the rest of their lives.”

The mother of a fifth-grade student explaining that he didn’t get services because his counselor was assigned to proctoring during the weeks of MCAS testing sessions: “Like many students with disabilities, my 10-year-old son’s self-esteem was fragile to begin with, and not having the emotional support of the counselor even for just a few weeks led to an emotional crisis. The effects lasted well past the end of the school year.”

A parent of a high-schooler: “My heart was crushed to see my daughter text me from school in a complete panic, crying because she realized she will not pass her 10th-grade MCAS math. This from a high-achieving student who just struggles with math.”

A 10th-grade student says it all: “I don’t think it’s fair that we need MCAS in order to graduate. We are so much more than a test.”

Some legislators also say “no”

There is a bill before the state Legislature that would eliminate high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement and replace it with other ways of demonstrating that a student has met state standards through completion of coursework. The bill is called the Thrive Act.

The Thrive Act would establish a commission to create a more equitable system of assessing students in all districts while supporting locally led school improvement plans and complying with federal law.

We urge Cambridge’s City Council and School Committee to go on record in support of the Thrive Act by notifying our state legislators of their support.

What can you do?

You can opt your child out of taking the MCAS in grades 3-8. There is no consequence to the child for refusing to take the test. Just write a letter to your principal to say you’ve made this decision.

Our group of retired Cambridge educators has presented our concerns to the School Committee. We have asked them to take five actions:

  1. Pass a resolution in support of the Thrive Act.
  2. Take an abbreviated version of the 10th-grade MCAS. It is eye-opening to see just what it involves and how this single measure has denied far too many students a high school diploma. You can do this too. Try a practice test online.
  3. Review the number of students who do not pass the MCAS annually in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades and are denied a diploma because of it. This data should be broken down demographically so we can see the impact on our highest-need students.
  4. Direct the superintendent to send a letter to all families in grades K-8 explaining that they have the right to opt their children out of the test with no consequence to that student.
  5. Explore alternative means of assessing student achievement with particular attention to gathering meaningful data that can inform instruction, especially in meeting the needs of our most vulnerable students.

In 2014, high school students in Providence, Rhode Island, challenged prominent citizens in the community to take the test themselves. Of the 50 volunteers who took the test, including state representatives, state senators, city council members, senior aides to the mayor, attorneys, professors, scientists and a former Democratic candidate for governor, 60 percent did not score high enough to graduate. This resulted in the Rhode Island legislature passing a moratorium on standardized testing as a graduation requirement.

Contact your state legislators and tell them to support the Thrive Act. Talk to your neighbors and friends and spread the word that, after 20 years, the MCAS has failed our children. It is time to demand real accountability from our politicians and school leaders to provide equity and excellence for all children.

Sally Benbasset, Phyllis Bretholtz, Isabel Frankel, Richard Goldberg, Kathy Greeley, Leslie Kramer, Karen Kosko, Nella LaRosa-Waters, Susan Markowitz, Ana Mejia, Cassandra Reese, Shelley Rieman, Jessie Wenning, Sheli Wortis and Rachel Wyon, Cambridge Retired Educators Against the MCAS