MCAS DEABATE - State delays testing until June,proposed to only use results to measure performance.

State education officials’ insistence on sticking to the rite of administering MCAS examinations to children for the 2020/2021 academic year continues to rankle already frustrated rank-and-file administrators and educators.

Yet, though several superintendents and School Committees in the Middlesex East coverage area protested the high-stakes testing schedule last fall, opinions appear more mixed about the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) latest proposal to shorten testing times and use the MCAS data in grades 3 through 8 solely as a tool to measure student performance.

For example, during a Stoneham School Committee gathering earlier this month, town education board member Thomas Dalton argued the data derived from the tests could prove invaluable in gauging the successes and pitfalls of the hybrid and remote learning formats relied upon during the COVID-19 era.

“It will hopefully give us some useful data. There’s a lot of unanswered questions in a year like this about how our kids are doing,” said Dalton.

Some of Dalton’s peers appear far from convinced the latest state proposal, which has since been expanded upon by pushing out most MCAS testing dates until June, is in the district’s best interests.

With another board colleague questioning whether Stoneham had to comply with the state mandate, School Committee Chair Jaime Wallace questioned whether parents should “opt out” of the examination.

Though town resident and DESE administrator Robert Curtin would later point out there is no such MCAS “opt-in/opt-out” mechanism, Wallace responded the town would not be penalized if parents called their child in sick.

“Normally, I’d never opt my child out of MCAS, because I know that goes against the [federal accountability standards] for the district,” said Wallace. “But this year, where we’re not being held accountable, if I chose to call my child out [of school], it’s not held against the district, correct?”

Renewed objections

As Reading Superintendent Dr. John Doherty pointed out just a few days ago, a number of education advocacy groups are renewing their objections to the MCAS mandate in light of DESE’s latest push to return students back to their classrooms full-time.

“The Mass Association of School Superintendents (MASS), with the support of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, released a position paper on administering the MCAS and ACCESS testing this spring,” Doherty wrote in a blog post to parents on March 14, when he referred Reading’s citizenry to the three-page position paper issued on Feb. 25.

According to the state’s superintendents, DESE has failed to demonstrate that the MCAS testing data will even be useful for determining whether individual students have fallen behind due to hybrid and virtual learning environments.

“MCAS is a summative assessment measuring the level of learning toward the MA Curriculum Standards. Learning loss during Covid is more nuanced and local assessments are a better diagnostic,” the MASS memo sent to DESE officials reads.

“We are the experts, the professionals in this area,” MASC members continued. “We should not be spending our time trying to operationalize test administration of students which ultimately will only serve to be a perfunctory compliance task that is stealing our valuable time away from efforts toward a healthy return, recovery, and acceleration of learning for all.”

Last week, state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley followed through with last-minute plans to order all public school systems to revert away from hybrid and virtual learning environments and back to in-person settings beginning in April.

Doherty and a number of his colleagues in the immediate area have vented their frustration with Riley’s unexpected directive, which he announced at a press conference in late February without first soliciting input from city and town officials.

With teachers and school officials slowly digesting the implications of that news, MCAS advisories issued in the wake of the return-to-school order have only served to exacerbate that growing resentment.

According to DESE officials, in recognition of the strains being placed on local resources during the coming transition back to a traditional classroom-based education model, the following MCAS concessions are being made:

• The administration of the MCAS tests for grades 3 through 8 are being delayed until June, when pupils will be allowed to take shortened subject tests that are based upon a sampling of questions selected to measure student familiarity with core curriculum concepts;

• DESE will as promised seek a federal waiver to eliminate the state’s reliance upon MCAS results to determine compliance with school and district level accountability standards;

• And districts will be given a one-month window to choose the dates for the administration of 10th grade MCAS exams.

Nonetheless, the MASS and representatives from the state’s teachers unions contend the combination of the testing and return-to-classroom mandates is too much.

In fact, some MCAS opponents are now calling upon state legislators to intervene in the dispute by passing emergency legislation that cancels the high-stakes testing in any form for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Differences of opinion

Last year, when DESE cancelled MCAS exams at the start of the pandemic, area School Committees and superintendents all heralded the decision.

However, support for cancelling the MCAS examinations for the current academic year has been more subdued.

Highlighting that disparity, last December, Woburn School Committee member Andrew Lipsett was quietly rebuked by his peers for championing a local resolution that called upon the state to cancel MCAS for the next three years and hold all current high schoolers harmless from the state’s graduation competency rule.

Lipsett, who supported the proposal as Woburn's delegate to a summer MASC conference, tried to convince his colleagues that the proposal was warranted given the obstacles faced by communities that have adopted entirely new learning models in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also challenged whether the data obtained from the MCAS results will be of any use to educators and building level administrators, other than pointing out the already blatantly obvious conclusion that students learn better in a full-time, in-person educational setting.

However, in a 6-to-1 vote, Lipsett was overruled by his School Committee peers, some of whom consider the MCAS exams more important than ever in light of widespread anecdotal reports that children are struggling with an Internet-based learning environment.

“[W]e need some type of tool to show kids are getting [the education] we say they should be getting. How will we know how much these kids have regressed? We need something to be able to judge [how these kids are doing with our hybrid and remote learning]," said Woburn School Committee member Patricia Chisholm. "I'll support a one-year [moratorium on MCAS], but no three years. To do away with it would be a mistake."

In neighboring Stoneham, some like Dalton — who originally shared Lipsett’s concerns about the utility of MCAS data and last fall labelled the testing plan as “insane” — have since changed their minds.

Stoneham’s superintendent, who last November voiced similar angst around DESE’s MCAS plans, also suggested this month that cancelling the assessments could put Stoneham’s high schoolers at a disadvantage in the years ahead.

“Your current juniors, if you think about it, if they don’t do it now, then they’ll have to pass the tests their senior year. The reason, [high school MCAS tests are] taken in sophomore year is so if students don’t pass it, they’ll have other opportunities,” said the Stoneham administrator.

Macero in his commentary was referring to the state’s use of 10th grade MCAS examinations as a graduation competency determination. At the present time, the DESE requirement specifies that all high schoolers pass the MCAS English language arts and mathematics test.

Because DESE cancelled all MCAS exams last spring at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, high school juniors have already lost one chance to pass the tests.

Should the exams be cancelled again this year, the Class of 2022 will have just one shot at meeting the graduation requirement at the tail-end of their senior year — when many districts allow seniors to end the academic year weeks earlier than their younger classmates.

Technically, current high school seniors could potentially be in the same boat after missing an opportunity for an MCAS retest last year, but the Class of 2021 did get one chance at meeting the graduation requirement during their pre-pandemic sophomore year.

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