THE DEBATE OVER standardized testing has sometimes come to feel like a battle of biblical proportions, so perhaps Deb McCarthy’s word choice is no accident.
“In the beginning, I was definitely an avid supporter,” she said. “I was known as the MCAS guru in my building.”
To say McCarthy has undergone something of a conversion is an understatement. The veteran Hull educator, who is now vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has been doing her best to burn the high-stakes testing system to the ground.
In 2021 and 2022, she refused to administer the state-mandated MCAS test to her fifth grade students, a move that each time led to her being put on three days of administrative leave by her district.
Now, in her leadership role with the state’s largest teachers union, McCarthy is encouraging other teachers to become “conscientious objectors” by refusing to give the test, and also urging them to have their own children not take the test – and “encourage other parents to do the same.”
A 25-year veteran of the Hull schools, McCarthy said she initially believed in “the promise of the accountability system.” She still feels strongly that regular assessment of students is important, but said the MCAS system not only hasn’t helped close achievement gaps, it has turned schools into “testing warehouses” and squeezed out things like librarians and band programs in Hull.
Earlier this month, McCarthy and MTA president Max Page told the union’s more than 100,000 members that it’s time for an all-out push to scrap the state’s test-based accountability system. “Today we are launching a campaign to replace the punitive, high-stakes, rank-and-shame accountability system,” they wrote in a newsletter to MTA members.
At the policy level, the union is pushing legislation that would end the requirement that students pass the 10th grade MCAS exam to graduate from high school. The bill would also repeal the provision of a 2010 law that lets the state take over chronically low-performing school districts.
But the newsletter also highlighted the role individual teachers can play by becoming “conscientious objectors” who refuse to give the state test and by encouraging families to opt their children out of taking MCAS. It tells teachers that the MTA will provide an attorney if they face suspension or termination for refusing to give the test, and it provides a link to information for parents on their right to not have their child take MCAS.
Mary Tamer, director of the state office of Democrats for Education Reform, said the MTA focus on having teachers and families ditch the MCAS test is disturbing. “The fact that this is a priority for the union is very troubling,” she said. “Let’s see the same level of passion and determination and, frankly, time and money go toward addressing those gaps versus saying, we don’t want to test kids because we don’t like what those tests are saying.”
McCarthy said the union is not encouraging families to opt out of the 10th grade test, since it would jeopardize their child’s high school graduation. For other grades, if student participation in MCAS falls below 95 percent it can lower a school’s ranking in the state accountability system.
There is little sign that opting out of MCAS has caught on in Massachusetts. McCarthy said about 50 Cambridge teachers refused to administer the test last year. As for student participation, MCAS participation on last year’s 8th grade science test was 98 percent – and that was the lowest rate for any grade or tested subject, according to a recent story on opt-out efforts.
McCarthy insists the MTA goal isn’t to see mass disruption through widespread refusals to take MCAS. “I really don’t want that,” she said. “What we really want is for the major stakeholders and power brokers to move toward a system of assessment that is authentic, relevant, and timely and that is centered on the student.”
Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the MTA should focus less on protests and more on productive conversations with those stakeholders on possible changes to the state testing and accountability system.
“There is a lot of interest” among superintendents in exploring those issues, Scott said. “We’ve been doing the same thing for a number of years. We think there needs to be a conversation about this. Are there other authentic accountability systems that can also satisfy our needs? No one is saying what we’ve been doing is the be-all and end-all. But our members would say, let’s not dump something until we’ve found something better.”