THE VALUE OF using MCAS scores to determine graduation readiness and school oversight status is getting several enthusiastic tire-kicks. The state’s largest teachers union is charging away at a ballot measure that would remove the graduation requirement component of the 10th grade MCAS, and similar legislation known as the Thrive Act is being considered on Beacon Hill.

Critics of high-stakes testing say the state’s current evaluation system misjudges the value of testing in education.

“If we think about the theory of change here, that if we hold schools accountable, if we hold students accountable for results on standardized tests, we will therefore see higher scores, right?” Jack Schneider, professor at UMass Amherst’s College of Education, said on The Codcast. “The theory of change there really does center around the idea that people aren’t trying their hardest, that what they need is a little bit more pressure. They need a sword hanging over them. And I think that that doesn’t actually square with what we know about teachers and students.”

Massachusetts has an unusual graduation requirement system – schools are permitted wide latitude in creating and structuring curricula subject to state guidelines, but Massachusetts is the only state where just one test alone stands between a student and diploma. So removing the 10th grade MCAS would leave very little predictably for Massachusetts graduates unless it is replaced with another system.

The Thrive Act would replace the MCAS graduation requirement with district-level determinations of student competency and prevent the state from taking over districts with low performance on the MCAS. Critics say that it will introduce a system with hundreds of disjointed standards.

Some Advanced Placement classes and New York Performance Standards Consortium suggest to Schneider that “it’s possible to have standards aligned performance tasks – meaningful student work that gives you a whole lot more information about what students know and can do. And if that is more aligned with the curriculum, that is going to be more aligned with what students feel to be genuinely valuable and a part of their education.” 

To be fair, even proponents of removing the MCAS as a graduation requirement and oversight metric say that testing can serve vital functions in education. And standardized testing is a federal requirement for K-8 students.

“I think that there is no significant harm in continuing with MCAS provided that there aren’t stakes, or that the stakes are quite low, or the exact opposite of high stakes where actually resources follow low test scores,” Schneider said.

Grades and tests communicate a student’s academic status to parents, teachers, admissions officers, and employers, as well as letting students themselves know how well they are absorbing material. They can motivate and orient students during their time in school. And standardized testing formats help create synchronization, where students can transition smoothly between grades and schools with a good sense of where they stack up.

“Again, there are better ways to do it, but we can’t just wish away grades, test scores, and transcripts. Because they do serve these purposes,” said Schneider, who recently co-authored the book Off The Mark: How Grades, Rating, and Rankings Undermine Learning.

But the justifications for using MCAS as a predictor for outcomes later in life – like its correlation with higher income and educational attainment – doesn’t sit well with Schneider.

“I think that people who are making the argument that MCAS is a predictor of things like higher income are really missing the bigger picture here,” he said. “The best predictor of future income is current income. So if you want to know how students are going to be doing later in life financially, let’s just look at their parents’ bank accounts. Now, I don’t think that’s a particularly useful exercise for our schools to be engaged in.”