Guest columnist James Royer: Get rid of MCAS for high school graduation?

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By JAMES ROYER

Published: 10-15-2023 9:40 PM

Current law dictates that students are required to pass the MCAS tests in mathematics, science and technology, and English to receive a high school diploma. Petitions are circulating that would place on the ballot a law that would replace the MCAS requirement with a requirement that students complete coursework certified by their school district as demonstrating mastery of the previously mentioned subjects. I support putting the issue to voters. However, I have misgivings about the ramifications of MCAS elimination.

First, some history. Differential educational achievement between groups, most prominently racial groups but others as well, has been a vexing issue in the U.S. for many years. A widely believed theory in the 1950s was that poor minority achievement was a consequence of the flawed separate but equal doctrine as applied to education. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was thought to be a remedy for educational discrimination. However, as years passed, differences between racial groups did not disappear. In the 1970s a different theory came to the forefront. Substantial educational research indicated that teacher expectations for student achievement were associated with actual achievement. Students taught by teachers who thought their students would do well, did do well. Students taught by teachers with lower expectations for student performance did not do as well. This advantage held across racial and ethnic differences. The expectation research led to the development of another theory, the gist of which can be captured with the phrase, “the soft discrimination of low expectations.” In essence, the theory stated that teachers working with groups that historically had been identified as low achievers would (perhaps unconsciously) have low expectations for their achievement and by doing so, produce the achievement levels they expected.

In the late 1970s a policy movement among state governors, initially led by Bill Clinton then governor of Arkansas, was designed to ensure that all students were held to the same standards of performance. Thereby, in theory, combating the discrimination of low expectations. Over the years, that policy movement led to the development of standardized achievement tests for all states in the U.S. These tests were supposed to be taken by all students and all teachers were expected (perhaps forced) to strive for high student levels of achievement. A historical examination of student performance, as measured by standardized test performance, shows that students have done better since the implementation of statewide testing.

Over the years backlashes emerged over the use of mandatory state testing, and in particular in Massachusetts, the linking of MCAS performance and high school graduation. I fully recognize the concerns raised by teachers and parents regarding the MCAS requirement for high school diplomas, but I worry about what will happen if the linkage is eliminated. The problem I see has to do with the nature of the process that school districts will use to assure competencies in math, science and English have been achieved.

Variability in competencies? The proposed law, if implemented, will allow each school district to create their own performance standard for competency in math, science and English. This will undoubtedly result in some districts having rigorous standards and others relatively lenient standards. This would be a major departure from the current situation where all school districts are required to meet the same standard of performance. Moreover, it may create the impression that some districts need lenient standards because some students in those districts are incapable of meeting more rigorous standards.

Will judgments about competencies be made uniformly? Testing solves this issue in a concrete way. If an agreed upon score is achieved, it’s a pass. Competency evaluations, as proposed, are less concrete. They involve human judgment, probably in the form of grades in a class, and human judges bring a range of biases and prejudices to their decision making, thereby making agreement between judges problematical. Imagine a situation where the same class is taught by two different teachers in a district. Will the two teachers use the same standards of performance in reaching a decision about the grades given to students?

The competency concern is only one of several issues that elimination of MCAS testing may produce. Another, for example, is the loss of an indicator that can serve as a report card to track the effectiveness of school systems over years. But the worrying thing for me about the new law is that, unintendedly, it could allow our schools systems to slip back into the soft discrimination era. If the standards of competency vary from school district to school district, with standards being lower in districts with historical records of low achievement, we may slide right back into the situation where soft discrimination influences achievement.

James Royer is an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts. He lives in Northampton.

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