As state education officials prepare to unveil a next-generation MCAS exam this spring, a growing number of Beacon Hill legislators insist Massachusetts needs to reconsider the purpose and scope of high-stakes testing in local schools.
After fielding hundreds of calls from concerned parents, local teachers, and administrators frustrated by an education system they see as increasingly obsessed with standardized test scores, nearly 100 state legislators have joined in support of a bill that would freeze for three-years the use of state assessments.
Those supporting the sweeping education reform package, known as Bill S.308, include legislators representing most of The Middlesex East’s coverage area, including Wakefield, Woburn, Tewksbury, Wilmington, Reading, Wakefield, Winchester, and Stoneham.
“I felt over the last few years that too much time is dedicated towards preparing and studying for the test. The students are losing time with other subject matters they could be learning otherwise,” said State Rep. James Miceli (D-Wilmington), who is a strong supporter of rethinking the state’s MCAS policies.
"I co-sponsored the high-stakes testing bill (S.308) after speaking with teachers, administrators and educational professionals about the growing burden of testing on our students,” State Rep. James Dwyer, a Woburn democrat, commented in a separate interview. “Don't get me wrong; I believe there needs to be assessments to determine our students' growth and achievement. However, when our system of education becomes so assessment centered, I think we need to take a step back.”
Introduced in the Statehouse by State Senator Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury) and dubbed, “An Act Strengthening and Investing in our Educators, Students, and Communities”, the legislation would address far more than just test results, as it would also restructure the state’s Chapter 70 or education aid system.
Specifically, the measure would require the state to adopt the recommendations of the Mass. Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC), a study group which in the fall of 2015 concluded the state is underfunding its educational obligations by as much as $2 billion.
According to State Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), that local aid component caught his attention more than the state assessment moratorium, as he believes schools in his district and across the state are chronically underfunded.
“Personally, I think the most important piece of [this bill] is that it will implement the recommendations of the [FBRC],” said Lewis. “There’s been no real overhaul of Chapter 70 since [the state’s 1993 education reform act]. We’ve had major changes in technology, special education, and health care costs. So the formula is really out of date.”
The major reform bill, also supported by the Mass. Teachers’ Association and other lobbying groups with shared interests, was referred in late January to
the Statehouse’s Joint Committee on Education. Some of the legislation’s major provisions include:
• The imposition of a three-year moratorium on the use of MCAS, PARCC, or the next generation MCAS 2.0 testing results as a high school graduation requirement;
• The influx of some $500 million to $2 billion in Chapter 70 or state aid to cities and towns for local schools over the next five-to-seven years;
• A prohibition on incorporating “student impact” ratings, or indicators based on MCAS or other student assessment data, into teacher evaluation grades;
• New limitations on the state’s power to mandate changes at “underperforming schools”, a designation that is now largely based upon test scores;
• and a new recess mandate, which requires school districts to schedule weekly at least 100 minutes of free play time for pupils in grades K-5.
According to a number of area legislators concerned about a growing emphasis on state testing, instituting a moratorium now makes sense, since the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is about to introduce this spring a new instrument dubbed MCAS 2.0.
Last June, DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester notified area superintendents that all pupils in grades 4 and 8 will be required to take MCAS 2.0 via the computer. Based on DESE’s current plans, beginning in 2021, high school pupils will be required to pass the next generation MCAS math, English-language, and science tests in order to graduate.
This spring will be the first time students in the state will be taking the new test. For the past two years, about half of pupils across the state have been taking the now-defunct Partnerships for Assessments of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam.
PARCC was long expected to replace the original MCAS test - now being called Legacy MCAS - but in November of 2015, DESE’s education board voted to abandon the common assessment. In the same announcement, state education officials unveiled plans to roll-out instead the next generation MCAS 2.0, which blends together items from both PARCC and the Legacy MCAS .
State Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham democrat whose district includes Winchester, argues DESE can still proceed with the administration of the new exam, but hold cities and towns harmless for the results until state officials can examine whether to tamper down the emphasis on testing.
“This is a reboot of legislation I co-sponsored last year,” said Day of the moratorium. “I think we’ve gotten to a place now where assessments are being used for a whole bunch of purposes they were never intended for. I think we’ve lost sight of what these tests are really useful for, and I think it’s time to take a deep breath.”
“Originally, going way back to MCAS’s inception, I thought it was a good idea. “But then along comes PARCC and then we’re told, ‘Let’s switch testing vehicles.’ It’s time to get the discussion going [about whether our education system relies too much on assessments],” agreed Miceli.
In fact, when the Legacy MCAS was first introduced as a result of the state’s 1993 education reform act,it was intended to be used as a way to measure student achievement and identify weak learning areas for both individual pupils and larger populations. Eventually, 10th graders were required to pass the exams in order to graduate.
However, beginning in 2002, with the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the state began using test scores to determine whether school districts were meeting “accountability” standards. Under the federal education rules, those deemed “underperforming facilities” faced a host of repercussions, including loss of federal funding and possible takeovers from state education officials.
Though the NCLB has since been replaced with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which removes the imposition of financial penalties upon underperforming districts, student testing data is still relied upon heavily to determine a school system’s accountability status.
And those schools deemed as chronically failing still face a myriad of consequences, such as state-imposed obligations to allocate funding towards MCAS tutoring and other remedial offerings.
Also, in recent years with the implementation of a new educator evaluation system, teachers’ performance reviews were also partially linked to MCAS or PARCC results.
According to various supporters of the MCAS moratorium, the standardized testing apparatus being built into the state’s education system is becoming too burdensome and perhaps even undercutting student achievement by steering resources away from other important programs.
“I’m not sure if a moratorium is absolutely needed, but I do think we need to reconsider our whole approach to testing. I do worry the pendulum may have swung too far. We’re spending more and more time on testing and preparing students for tests,” said Lewis.
"We are very proud in Massachusetts to be an example of educational excellence in the United States. No one is trying to diminish that success,” Dwyer remarked in a separate interview. “But, we can't become complacent that our current high stakes testing system is the best model for our students. Many districts, to meet requirements, mandates, and testing windows, have had to scale back on [other art, music, and health] enrichment programs.”