ATTLEBORO — A proposed new law would lower the stakes on the state’s high-stakes standardized testing system.
State Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, have both filed versions of a bill that would drop the requirement that makes the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — commonly known as MCAS — a graduation necessity and make other modifications as well.
Hawkins, a former teacher and longtime critic of MCAS, said he’s not a foe of all standardized testing, but argues that “there’s not a point to having it high stakes.” And as currently constituted, the three lengthy tests — for math, sciences and English — disrupt school for an entire week, he added.
State and federal laws require schools to administer standardized testing as a measure of school and student achievement. Hawkins said he recognizes the need for testing as a tool for assessments and would not eliminate the tests, but MCAS, in the nearly 30 years it’s been part of the state’s education system, “got carried away.”
School, he said, “is not a factory where you do quality testing on these kids.” As much as he’s complained about MCAS in the past, the bills he and Comerford filed, he said, is proposing a solution.
“It makes the MCAS fairer,” Hawkins said.
Besides lifting the graduation requirement, the new law would give schools the opportunities to create different pathways for students to demonstrate they’ve mastered subjects; provide alternative methods to evaluate special needs students; include parent, student and teacher views in the evaluation process; and create a grant program to support local districts doing their own planning. The grant program would be administered by the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.
Attleboro is a charter member of that group. School Superintendent David Sawyer acknowledged that assessment is a critical tool for teachers who can then adjust their instruction for students who need it, but said the current accountability system in the state is “flawed in several important ways.” And removing the “high stakes” aspect of MCAS is a good interim step, he said.
In an email responding to a question about a revised MCAS, Sawyer wrote: “We would like to participate in a thoughtful conversation at the state level about how we can improve education for all students in the Commonwealth. Without explicitly endorsing any specific provision of our work, I do overwhelmingly support the fundamental goals to rethink our accountability system and offer scalable alternatives as a way to push the dialogue.”
State education authorities, however, remain committed to the standardized testing, although they’ve modified the requirements for this year. Last spring, when all learning went remote, the test requirements were waived. This year, the state wants students tested, but the test will be shorter for students in grades 3-8, the competency determination for the class of 2021 will be modified and education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley will not name any new schools or districts as “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming.” Seniors are also exempt from the test this year.
Renewing the test this spring is a mistake, according to Hawkins, who has also filed a bill to eliminate the requirement for the current academic year. He admits that’s unlikely to effectively block the testing at this point.
Riley told the state’s superintendents in January that this year’s MCAS would offer insight into academic losses that need to be addressed this spring and summer.
The state “continues to believe the MCAS test is a crucial diagnostic tool to promote student success and educational equity and we remain committed to administering the assessment this spring, while recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility,” Riley wrote.
Department spokesperson Jackie Reis noted in an email that “we have already outlined ways for members of the class of 2021 to meet the state graduation requirement this year even if they have not passed MCAS yet.”
For Sawyer, the modifications proposed in Hawkins’ bill mean that schools can still use the test results. However, he noted, “it is not a solution to the deeper systemic problems.
“Shifting our concern from ‘performance’ to ‘learning’ while accounting for the vastly uneven playing field that exists among school districts will require much more than simply alleviating the undue testing pressures of a questionable testing regime.”
Hawkins was unsure when either one of his bills might come up for a hearing.