PUBLIC EDUCATION in Massachusetts is at a crossroads. Amidst a deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has taken 15,000 Massachusetts lives, Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley have called for full-time, in-person learning to resume in April for all elementary schools. Meanwhile, education leaders, teachers, and parents point out that educators have yet to receive access to vaccines and many school buildings still lack adequate safety plans. This is another example of the top-down decision-making at the state and district-level that has excluded meaningful input from educators and marginalized families of color who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.
What is behind this new push to bring educators and students back into potentially unsafe buildings before vaccinating teachers? Might there be a connection to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s previously announced decision to administer MCAS testing for students this spring, a move that has also added to high levels of distress among teachers and students? Is the MCAS –and the millions of dollars for testing companies at stake— the elephant in the room? Is this yet another example of how this godforsaken test is driving education policy and decision-making, at the expense of students of color and educators’ lives?
There is no question that COVID-19 school closures have reinforced already existing education disparities faced by our state’s students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. The pandemic has shed light on the profound racial and economic disparities in our school system driven by inequitable funding and a lack of access to remote learning technologies and supports for marginalized students. Yet these profound disparities only go to show that now, more than ever, our schools need to center around student and family health and social emotional supports, rather than harmful, high-stakes, standardized testing which will only exacerbate the chaotic pressures facing teachers and students who are coping with loss and trauma.
That is why a growing movement of education justice organizations, school committees, educators, students, and parents across the state have urged cancellation of this harmful, high-stakes exam this spring. So far, 30 Massachusetts school districts and counting have passed resolutions calling on the state to suspend MCAS testing this year, and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees voted overwhelmingly for this resolution.
Citizens for Public Schools (an organization which I am on the board of) recently spearheaded a letter –signed by 19 education justice and civil rights organizations –urging the Legislature to seek a testing waiver from the Federal Department of Education and to cancel this year’s MCAS.
Even during normal times, our MCAS testing system is the wrong answer for students. According to a recent white paper released by Citizens for Public Schools, the MCAS: 1) is a poor measure of children’s learning 2) narrows the curriculum by forcing teachers to focus on drill-and-kill test prep rather than holistic learning such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, 3) perpetuates racial inequality and, like other standardized tests, has historic roots in the racist Eugenics movement, 4) produces test scores that are most closely correlated with family wealth and privilege, 5) has not raised student achievement since it was implemented, according to the NAEP test scores, and 6) diverts $30 million yearly of needed state school funding in a state that has among the widest gaps between the lowest and highest spending districts in the nation.
Due to grassroots pressure from stakeholders, education officials have taken a number of important steps to reduce the scope of the test, such as eliminating the graduation requirement tied to the test for this year’s students. However, DESE is still requiring educators to administer the test this spring based on the rationale that the test scores will be necessary to measure “learning losses” for disadvantaged students, an argument that received unequivocal support in a recent Boston Globe editorial.
There are several issues with this argument. We already know the answer to the question that the Globe hopes the test will answer. It’s a resounding “yes.” Of course, there have been dramatic learning losses for students, and especially for those living in poverty, who face the greatest barriers to learning. One rigorous national study projected COVID-19-related learning losses based on absenteeism literature and analyses of summer learning patterns for 5 million students. It projected that students began school this past fall with only 37-50 percent of learning gains in math, and 63-68 percent of learning gains in reading, relative to a typical school year (Kuhfeld et al. 2020).
Educators do not need to spend countless hours prepping students nor go through the logistical nightmare of administering the MCAS during a deadly pandemic just to reinforce these devastating numbers. That will certainly do more harm than good. Teachers need to put all the time they have with their students helping them recover and get back into learning. Devoting time to tests that are both stressful and boring will delay recovery, not speed it up.
Lastly, a focus on more tests to assess student achievement takes our attention away from what we really need to assess: the profound institutional disparities, resource gaps, and barriers to learning in our education system that the pandemic has shed light on, which we must urgently address.
Students are not the ones who need to be held accountable right now. We must hold DESE accountable for providing the help and resources that our schools need: safer school buildings, contact tracing, vaccinations for teachers, improved remote learning opportunities for students, and full funding for the Student Opportunity Act. That is, we need a just recovery in education that halts the damaging high-stakes standardized tests, and puts the health, happiness, and well-being of every child at the center of learning now and in the post-pandemic era.
Andrew King is a board member of Citizens for Public Schools, which is funded primarily by teacher unions. He is also a member of Our Revolution Cambridge’s education committee and a doctoral candidate in public policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.