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The Latest MCAS Results Tell an All Too Familiar Story

The Latest MCAS Results Tell an All Too Familiar Story

Here we go again. Another year, another round of results from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, the Commonwealth’s standardized exam that is administered in 3rd through 8th, and 10th grade. This year, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education unveiled a revamped version of the Grade 10 MCAS (unironically named the Next Gen MCAS). The Next Gen MCAS exams, now administered at all grade levels, are more challenging in an effort to meet the "academic expectations of higher-education institutions and employees" despite the fact that we have seen no evidence that any high stakes standardized test is capable of assessing the habits and skills needed to succeed in college and career.

The recently released 2019 MCAS results, including the hotly anticipated results for the revamped Grade 10 MCAS, show that, as expected, the new tests were more challenging. Only 3 in 5 students in the state “Met or Exceeded Expectations” (down from 90% proficiency rates on the old tests). Since MA is one of the 11 states that still use high-stakes tests as a graduation requirement, the state had to figure out a threshold to allow sufficient numbers of students to actually graduate. Previously, students had to score “Proficient” or higher on the tests, which 87% of sophomores did on the previous test. If they maintained the same threshold for this year’s sophomores, no more than 60% of students would have been eligible for a high school diploma. To solve this dilemma, the state settled on a new threshold for passing the MCAS. Students must score at or above the high end of the lowest performance bucket, “Not Meeting Expectations”. The irony is almost too much. Students are eligible for a Massachusetts high school diploma by NOT MEETING expectations. If the scores and categories are completely arbitrary and/or fungible, what value do they provide teachers and schools in trying to better serve their students? Teachers cannot use these results in any meaningful way to inform instruction; at best they can tell them which areas of the test they need to focus on.

Below are some observations on the absurdity of the Next Gen MCAS( from the 2019 Grade 10 MCAS Results).

  • Statewide, only 126 of 4,045 English Learners (ELs) (3%) “Met” or “Exceeded Expectations” on the Grade 10 ELA test, including only FIVE ELs scoring in the “Exceeding Expectations” category. The results were slightly better for the Grade 10 Math where 356 ELs “met” or “exceeded expectations”, including 31 ELs “exceeding expectations”. A test where only 5 out of 4,045 students scored at the highest category was not properly normed for all student populations.

  • Only one-fifth (22%) of Students with Disabilities (SWDs) met or exceeded expectations on the Grade 10 ELA and 18% on the Grade 10 Math, but only 2% “Exceeded Expectations” on each test.

  • If we consider the “proficient” and “advanced” categories on the old MCAS test as equivalents to the new “meeting expectations” and exceeding expectations”, statewide, we went from 91% to 61% on the ELA and 78% to 59% on the math tests. All ethno-racial groups, SWDs, ELs, and Economically Disadvantaged students saw a drop in rates, but Black, Latinx, SWD, EL, and Economically Disadvantaged students saw the biggest drop. As a result, all “Achievement Gaps” increased. White-Black, White-Latinx, Non-EL-EL, Non-SWD-SWD, and Non-Low-Income-Low Income gaps all increased substantially.

  • Looking at the schools with the largest drop in “proficiency” rates from 2018 to 2019, almost all are from the state’s urban centers, serving disproportionately high percentages of students of colors, ELs, and low-income students.

While we by no means want to legitimize MCAS as a viable measure of school quality and student learning, it is critical that we show the test for what it is-- a biased tool that will continue to oppress historically marginalized students and communities. We have all the evidence we need – this “Next Gen” test will continue to prop up the educational accountability system that keeps White (and Asian) students, English proficient students, students without diagnosed disabilities, and non-low income students in the lead and keep students of color, SWDs, ELs, and low-income students in a Sisyphean pursuit of closing an unclosable achievement gap.

The only way students and schools will beat these impossible odds is if teachers teach to the NEW MCAS test. Schools serving low-income students of color and ELs have been forced to dedicate crucial resources to test prep just in order to stay afloat and any future closing of the achievement gap is going to likely reflect schools and teachers becoming more comfortable with the new MCAS 2.0 test, not a change in the instruction, curriculum, or student learning. Now is the time to push back against the new MCAS, before we are mired in debates about the resulting achievement gaps and not the inequitable tests themselves.

Massachusetts students deserve the opportunity to actually show what they’ve learned, rather than be made to sit for an oftentimes needlessly stressful one-size-fits-all bubble test. As the MCAS once again shows itself for what it really is, let’s press our legislators and community leaders for change - for a new accountability system that considers student, parent, and educators’ values, while engaging students in authentic performance-based assessments that actually measure their readiness for college, career, and beyond.

Photo Credit: timlewisnm; CC BY-SA 2.0

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