This year’s high school juniors would not need to take MCAS tests to graduate, under a plan put forward Thursday by Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
Riley announced that he intends to present the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education with suggested changes to the graduation requirements for the class of 2022, modifying the competency determination for English and math so those students would not be required to take the test.
The board, which has its next meeting scheduled on April 20, would need to sign off on the move, which the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said was “in recognition of the missed testing opportunities when schools were closed last spring.”
Passing the 10th grade math and English MCAS tests is typically a graduation requirement. Amid the pandemic’s disruptions to schooling, state education officials modified those requirements for the classes of 2020 and 2021, allowing those seniors who had not yet passed the tests to instead demonstrate competency by earning full credit in a relevant course.
With students across Massachusetts learning remotely last spring, the MCAS tests were not administered — a move that required both a federal waiver and a new state law.
In February, officials at the U.S. Department of Education informed states that they were “not inviting blanket waivers of assessments” this year, citing a need to understand COVID-19’s impacts on learning, identify what supports students will need, and prepare to address educational inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. The department said it would offer flexibility around state assessments, including for shortened tests, remote administration and extended testing windows that could stretch into summer and fall.
State education officials previously announced a series of changes to this year’s MCAS program, including shortening the tests for third through eighth graders and postponing the exams until a later point in the spring.
The state Education Department said Thursday it also plans to extend the timeline for administering the tests to high school sophomores and third through eighth graders through June 11, and to offer remote administration of English and math exams for grades three through eight to accomodate students who’ve opted to continue learning remotely.
Juniors and seniors will still be able to take this year’s MCAS to qualify for scholarships, and this year’s juniors will also be able to take the exam during a retest period next fall.
Gov. Charlie Baker said he and Lt. Gov. Polito “have spent a lot of time” talking to Riley about student assessment this year, discussing issues of logistics, time and “alternative strategies to figure out where kids are.”
“I think the commissioner’s making what I would describe as a tiered approach to dealing, generally, with MCAS and with assessments overall,” Baker said during an event in Chelsea. “But I absolutely believe that with the federal resources that have been made available to local communities and to the commonwealth, we have to have a really robust summer school program for kids. If we don’t have one, shame on us, because by that point in time, the vast majority of the population that wants to get vaccinated will be vaccinated, and probably a bunch of the folks who are now hesitant will also be vaccinated. We really need to make sure that we do all we can for kids to ensure that by the time they get back to school in the fall or the time they go off to college or whatever it might be, we’ve given them a significant opportunity to catch up on all that’s been lost.”
While the Baker administration and some advocacy groups have described the MCAS as a key tool for measuring learning loss experienced during the pandemic, others, including teachers unions and some lawmakers, have called for canceling the tests this year in light of the continued educational turmoil.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa wrote on Twitter, reacting to Riley’s announcement. “Now just cancel the test for the rest of the year, Commissioner. Our students and teachers need to get back to learning in a supportive environment. Not one filled with stress as they race to prep for a test.”
Keri Rodrigues of the group Massachusetts Parents United blasted Riley’s recommendation as one that would “water down graduation requirements for the Class of 2022.”
“Rather than keeping a sharp focus on preparing the Class of 2022 academically and getting them ready for college or career success, the decision today is telling these high school juniors that we do not believe in them, that we’ve given up on them meeting the same standards as every other graduating class,” she said in a statement. “In light of this unwise decision, the Baker administration should be allocating special funding for the necessary remedial courses for students who aren’t prepared to take a college level course after being handed a ‘pandemic’ diploma.”
Twenty-nine of the 40 state senators sent Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker a letter Wednesday asking that this year’s tests be delayed until fall so the remainder of the year could “be spent on learning, re-establishing relationships, and recovery from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.”
Sen. Jo Comerford, who led the letter with Sens. Patricia Jehlen and Cindy Friedman, called Riley’s recommendation “another nail in the coffin of a failed test.”
“I respectfully urge the Commissioner and his board to recognize that the MCAS exam is not moving the students and schools of our Commonwealth equitably forward,” Comerford said in a statement. “We must #CancelMCAS once and for all, stop letting one test rob our children of a high school diploma, and rethink the way Massachusetts determines academic excellence.”