MCAS pic

Egremont Elementary School teacher Kathie Penna introduces a practice MCAS math exam to fourth graders in March 2014. Teachers unions and education leaders are debating the value of MCAS testing in a year when the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted learning.

Teachers unions and some lawmakers have pushed Massachusetts to scrap a standardized testing requirement in a pandemic-impacted school year, but the state and some advocacy groups still want public schools to administer tests this year.

Preparing for and administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam, opponents fear, would take away learning time that is especially scarce due to the pandemic. Moreover, some question the ability of standardized testing to measure student performance, since test results are often shown to correlate strongly with race and family income, among other social factors.

MCAS supporters, however, claim the difficult year makes the test particularly important for measuring whether students have fallen behind. Information gathered from testing, they say, would help parents see how their children are doing and allow the state to identify where additional resources might be needed.

While some Berkshire County educators see value in assessing students in a difficult year, others questioned whether MCAS testing was the right metric. They overwhelmingly support reducing or eliminating testing this year.

“I just don’t know if MCAS is the thing to evaluate [learning loss],” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a former teacher. “There’s just an enormous amount of learning time being taken away for test preparation.”

Testing time will be “significantly” reduced for grades three to eight this year, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced on Jan. 5. Riley also said no new schools would be newly named “underperforming,” and he would recommend against the use of the test as a graduation requirement this year.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, a statewide body consisting of around 400 local unions, called the news “a step in the right direction” but said it would continue to push for a full cancellation of testing.

The Berkshire Hills Education Association, the union for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, supports the MTA’s position, its co-presidents told The Eagle.

“Administering the MCAS will undermine our best efforts to tend to the social and emotional wellness of our students and truly meet their academic needs, as it will force us back into lockstep teaching to prepare for the test,” Helen Eline and Donna Astion said, quoting an MTA statement.

Some education advocates, however, argue the test would still provide valuable information.

“We know the pandemic has inequitably harmed some of our most disadvantaged students,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which opposes an MCAS moratorium. “It’s a year for collecting data so we can use the information to remediate learning loss.”

Addressing a common argument that testing takes up too much time, Lambert said the exam serves as just one part of the state’s broader system of education standards. The test, he said, isn’t meant to require special preparation. Rather, he said, standards are decided upon by educators to dictate what is taught in the classroom every day.

Lambert also cited a 2020 Brown University study that found, among students with similar demographic backgrounds, higher MCAS scores correlated with greater educational attainment and job market outcomes.

Still, Berkshire lawmakers are concerned with a perceived trade-off between learning and testing time, and most co-sponsored bills that would have implemented a moratorium testing this year. Some cast doubt over the validity of MCAS scores.

“I always have concerns with MCAS in general in that it seems to measure nothing more than just the economic standing of communities and [has] other issues that have been well documented,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Hinds, who said he’d prefer schools to “focus on learning,” expressed concern that standards could get in the way of schools’ efforts to prepare students to be “well rounded” members of their community.

State Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, said this year presents an opportunity to “take a longer look at how we measure students’ progress” and whether the MCAS exam is fulfilling its intended function.

Some lawmakers said they see some value for the test, although not this year.

“Standardized testing is fine as a metric to know where more resources are needed and what steps [the] state and federal government need to take to ensure that all students are receiving the same quality education,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

“As a measurement, I think the test is a tool to see if we’re progressing — almost [like] a grade that shows teachers how you’re advancing,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “If you’re not reading well at a third-grade level, how are you going to read at a fourth-grade level next year?”

The increased flexibility from the state this year is “welcome,” said Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon, who called the year “extraordinarily challenging.”

“I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do much testing this year, but using it to sort of check-in is OK,” Dillon said.

A 2018 Pittsfield High School graduate, Olivia Nda studies elementary and secondary education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and she participated in a “Teach Pittsfield” pilot program seeking to bolster teacher diversity in 2019. MCAS testing had pros and cons for her as a student, Nda said.

“In my case, the cons kind of outweigh the pros,” said Nda, who is Black. “MCAS helped to support me in the classroom but not to allow me or the teachers to go deeper on the content. For example, we weren’t really able to learn more about race and social issues in the country because we were just focused on what’s going on the test.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse Reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at the Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor. Danny can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @djinreports.