By Brendan Bean, a Watertown resident who has taught in the Boston Public Schools for nearly 10 years.
Standing outside my school in the morning, the brightly shining sun and chirping birds signal the start of that anxiously anticipated season here in Massachusetts. No, not spring; MCAS season. For many across the state, it feels like we have been building towards this for several months, if not all year. For teachers, this is understandable, as standardized tests like the MCAS have a direct impact on federal funds for schools. For students, however, the MCAS seems to loom over everything like Heartbreak Hill for marathoners. But does it have to?
I have worked in three different schools in Boston over the last decade (currently as a one-to-one paraprofessional) and one thing that has been consistent across all of them is standardized test anxiety. We describe the MCAS and other tests like it as “high stakes” and the students are acutely aware of that. I have watched excellent students break down in class under the pressure that they felt from simply having to prepare for the test. Some have even asked me if they’ll be held back if they don’t do well on it. While this is not the case for my seventh grader, it is for high schoolers. MCAS scores are used as a hard barrier to high school graduation, and that is precisely what I take umbrage with.
As a tool that allows us to compare individual schools or even entire school districts, the MCAS works reasonably well. It creates a ubiquitous standard that can be used to compare these institutions to each other in an objective way. This can provide important insights into the efficacy of the educational systems and pedagogies that we put into place. However, when it comes to determining the success or failure of a student’s K-12 career, we really should take a step back and ask ourselves if this is the right tool for the job.
There are a myriad of issues with placing so much stock in the results of a standardized test. In addition to the effects on students’ mental health, there are some serious misgivings about the MCAS when it comes to equity. Many critics of the test argue that the MCAS tends to favor White, middle class students due to the ways in which it is developed. It also tends to challenge multilingual learners (MLLs) more so than their native English speaking counterparts. According to US Census data, Massachusetts has become more diverse over the past decade, making this a growing concern.
These equity issues do not only exist along racial or cultural lines either. Students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or autism may also find themselves at a considerable disadvantage. And while there are in theory ways for a student who has a learning disability to circumnavigate the MCAS, this process requires a level of advocacy that few families can manage. Even for those who can, it is just another exhausting step in securing an equitable education for their child.
Furthermore, that pathway only exists for students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which leaves out students who suffer from anxiety, depression or students dealing with complex trauma. Is it fair to them to deny graduation because they were not able to demonstrate their growth on a test that is administered only once a year, even if they have been able to show it using other forms of assessment?
For me personally, the answer is a resounding NO! Especially in a case where the answer is a simple one. If we decouple the MCAS from graduation requirements, we can alleviate much of the pressure and anxiety that this test creates for our students while simultaneously making their education more equitable. It’s addition by subtraction, a concept that you may well find on the seventh grade Math MCAS. The way I see it, we as educators are required to spend an incredible amount of time and effort ensuring we are experts at assessing student learning. Using a standardized test to determine if the last 11 years of a student’s education were worthwhile is like taking the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. By supporting organizations like Citizens for Public Schools as well as legislation aimed at reforming our educational assessments we can improve the lives and education of our students dramatically. In a world where we are increasingly seeing students as individuals with unique strengths and challenges, the idea of a standardized test gatekeeping graduation feels counterintuitive at best, utterly detrimental at worst.