AS SCHOOL OFFICIALS have been pressuring the state to cancel this year’s MCAS tests, state education commissioner Jeff Riley said the decision is not his – it belongs to the federal government.  

“The federal government is still requiring we test our students,” Riley said, speaking at a Tuesday budget hearing before the Ways and Means Committees. “It provides a little wiggle room but won’t allow us to not test kids.” 

Riley, Education Secretary Jim Peyser, and the commissioners of early education and higher education testified for about two hours as lawmakers questioned them about topics ranging from low college attendance rates for students of color to staffing shortages in early education. Some of the most pointed questions were directed at Riley, who has overseen state policies regarding the reopening of K-12 schools during the pandemic.  

Last year, as COVID-19 shut schools down in March, Massachusetts cancelled the annual standardized tests. This year, the state has provided additional flexibility but is planning to still give the tests this spring. 

Some teachers’ unions have called for their cancellation, as have organizations representing school superintendents and school committees. They say the tests will take time away from teaching, just as many students are returning to school buildings for the first time in a year. They say the tests are not meant to be diagnostic tools for measuring learning loss, which they will likely become this year, and they will add stress to already anxious students.  

Sen. Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat who co-chairs the Committee on Higher Education, said testing seems ill-advised amid the pandemic. “It does seem rather crazy to have assessment tests,” she told Riley. “What are they going to assess and how helpful is that going to be?” 

Riley said the state has provided additional flexibility: extending the date by which the tests must be administered for grades 3-8 into June, halving the number of tests elementary and middle school students must take, and considering remote administration of tests. Riley said the state is seeking a waiver from the federal government to eliminate any accountability consequences for low-performing districts, and he has pledged not to label any new schools or districts “underperforming” based on test results this year.  

“We felt like it’s been a disruptive year, and we want to provide as much flexibility as we can,” Riley said. “We don’t want to penalize people for a once in a lifetime ecological disaster.” 

But Riley said the federal government will not let states completely eliminate testing. Georgia applied for a waiver from standardized testing, and did not get it. 

The budget hearing came as teachers’ unions have been sparring with state education officials – and Gov. Charlie Baker – over the state’s plan to force elementary schools to reopen five days a week by April 5 and middle schools by April 28. 

Gobi said the newly imposed deadline has been “horrendous for many of the school districts.” She called it “disconcerting” that “after months of telling locals do it yourself, you’re on your own, good luck to you, then a line in the sand is drawn for this April 5 date with really no discussion that I know of.”  

Riley responded that he gave teachers an extra 10 days of training at the beginning of the year so districts would be prepared to pivot between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning. He stressed that case numbers are down, and studies have shown little evidence of in-school virus transmission as long as safety precautions are in place.  

Students are struggling with isolation and mental health challenges. Parents will be allowed to keep their children remote through the end of the year, and the state has established a waiver program to consider individual communities’ extenuating circumstances. “At the end of the day, we know there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the medical community has been adamant the time to go back is now,” Riley said. 

Riley also warned that school districts will need to prepare to address students’ learning loss and social and emotional needs through summer school and through mental health care and other supports in the fall and beyond. “At the end of the day, this is going to be a multi-year recovery effort,” Riley said. “This isn’t something that’s going to be fixed over the summer or over the fall next year. It’s something we’ll have to work on over the next several years.”