High school football hasn’t survived this pandemic in tact. Nor have elementary school chorus concerts, middle school plays, field trips, school lunches or really the entire academic schedule. But education leaders in Massachusetts are grasping onto one vestige of the school year, the standardized test, even if it means offering the MCAS for the first time as a take-home exam.
Losing the state’s annual benchmark that tracks how well students, schools and school districts are doing — for a second year in a row — creates a significant blindspot. At the same time, education officials should accept that any test given in these conditions will be flawed and its results suspect.
At a minimum, the state should follow the path of others that are lowering the stakes of standardized tests in light of the pandemic, by once again waiving the MCAS graduation requirement. But given all of the complications of testing and higher rates of error, why give the MCAS at all?
Last summer nearly three-dozen lawmakers, including state Reps. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, and Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, signed onto a bill to suspend the MCAS for the next three years. The measure was sent off to a legislative committee never to be heard from again. It deserves more serious consideration.
The winds were blowing in a different direction at a meeting of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this past week. Education Secretary James Peyser described the need for “accurate, timely and actionable diagnostic data on student learning and learning loss." Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the state is weighing a range of changes to the MCAS, including on the time spent giving tests and even offering a take-home exam. (“I want to stress ‘might,’” he said of that possibility.)
But will the pandemic version of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System really deliver a meaningful gauge? While an MCAS given in the spring may be timely, it’s hard to believe that anyone, will find its results accurate or actionable.
Consider, for one, that a vast number of students in the state are learning remotely for some, if not all, of the school week. A recent survey of the largest districts by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education found none has resumed full, in-person classes. Nearly half are fully remote — including Boston, Worcester and Springfield. Dispersed classrooms, with the complicated logistics of connecting to students, are not ideal for even the most basic of lessons let alone a standardized test. And the pandemic's trends suggest that situation isn't going to change soon.
Never mind the question of how ready students are for the spring MCAS. Forcing a standardized test as if they’d been sitting in class full time the past four months will doubtless yield flimsy results that reflect, as much as anything, how well a school district manages testing.
This decision doesn’t completely rest with Peyser and Riley. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said annual waivers for standardized testing requirements given to all 50 states last spring won't be forthcoming again for next year. That could change with a new administration — or not. Pressure to keep testing are coming from across the political spectrum, with civil rights groups expressing concerns about a shortage of resources for the neediest students who are not identified by testing.
In response, a handful of states are moving to lower the stakes of annual tests, according to Education Week. Georgia, for example, nearly eliminated the weight given to end-of-course exams, from 20% of a student’s final grade to 0.01%. Texas lawmakers are pressing to either suspend a statewide standardized test or detach it from decisions about school funding.
Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an educational nonprofit created by the legislatures of 16 states, described the futility of these tests to the education publication: “This is the time to actually challenge the assumption that the state testing regimes will give us what we want. I have no confidence that state standardized tests this year will do that.”
Try as they might, education leaders in Massachusetts working to fit MCAS to the constraints of a pandemic are pointing their cameras at the sun in hopes of taking a picture of the light. The flaws of this tool will wash out any image that it yields. The sooner they recognize that, the better off everyone will be.