MCAS testing essential to address falling test scores

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This opinion piece was originally published on It was also published in the MetroWestDaily News, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, New Bedford Standard Times, Berkshire Eagle, and Lowell Sun.

Amid the chaos that was created by schools suddenly being shuttered in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it made sense to cancel administration of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests. But supporters of pending legislation that would place a four-year moratorium on using MCAS as a high school graduation requirement and create a commission to study alternatives to the tests are no longer responding to a crisis; they are using it to advance their anti-reform agenda.

MCAS was a centerpiece of Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act, which I co-authored in my role as Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education. Its results were more impressive than any of us could have imagined at the time.

State SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years and the Commonwealth’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) improved dramatically. By 2005, Massachusetts students became the first to score best in the nation in all four major categories (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math). Since then, they have repeated the feat on every subsequent NAEP administration except one.

While American students as a whole lag their global peers, Massachusetts students were competitive with their counterparts from places like Japan, South Korea and Singapore on consecutive administrations of the Trends in International Math and Science Study in 2007 and 2011. In 2007, the Commonwealth’s eighth graders tied for best in the world in science.

Importantly, work by educational standards expert E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has shown a correlation between academic quality and equity. As Massachusetts reading scores rose, its achievement gaps narrowed.

Despite unprecedented success, state leaders have now been chipping away at education reform for over a decade. An independent agency that performed comprehensive evaluations of state school districts was eliminated. In 2010, the Commonwealth swapped out academic standards in English and math that were national models for weaker ones known as Common Core. Subsequently, watered down science and history standards were also adopted.

Add that to voters’ rejection of a ballot initiative that would have allowed more of the state’s best-in-the nation charter schools, and the results aren’t surprising. SAT scores are well below their 2006 peak. The percentage of students scoring Advanced or Proficient on the MCAS third grade reading test – the best predictor of future academic success – fell 10 points from 2002 to 2013.

Even more alarmingly, the decline appears to be accelerating. Last year Massachusetts’ drop in fourth-grade math scores was larger than in 40 states and Washington, D.C. And fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores fell by more than twice as much as the fourth-grade math scores.

My criticism of these efforts to roll back MCAS, which are led by the states two teachers’ unions, comes from one whose career has been dedicated to organized labor. I spent more than a decade as a union-side labor lawyer. When I ran for governor in 2002, I was – and remain – proud to have been endorsed by both the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers.

Just as President Trump paints an overly rosy picture of the pre-pandemic national economy, we in Massachusetts need to be realistic about the disturbing academic trends in public education that were clear before the shutdown last March.

The priority now must be to address a decade-long decline in the Commonwealth’s K-12 schools. MCAS was a central ingredient in the historic rise of public education in Massachusetts that preceded the current decline. There could be no worse approach at this point than to eliminate yet another of the pillars of that earlier success.