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The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

MTA moves to eliminate MCAS graduation requirement

Earlier this year, members of the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) helped gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would eliminate the 10th grade MCAS graduation requirement, which the union said is inequitable for students.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests have been a mainstay of Massachusetts schools since the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993. Widely considered to be the foundation of public education as we know it in Massachusetts, the act guaranteed a basic level of state funding for all public schools, raised standards that students were expected to meet and developed the MCAS as a system for enforcing those standards.

More specifically, the act established that students should be evaluated in the 10th grade and that displaying “mastery… as measured by the assessment instruments” in the 10th grade “shall be a condition for high school graduation.”

However, in recent years, advocates have started raising questions about whether this requirement is fair. Among those arguing against the graduation requirement is the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), a labor union representing 117,000 teachers across Massachusetts with approximately 400 local chapters, including the Brookline Educators Union (BEU). The MTA is championing a state ballot initiative that would amend the Educational Reform Act to abolish the MCAS graduation requirement, which MTA leadership said is inequitable for students.

Federal law requires standardized testing in high schools, but Massachusetts is one of only eight states where benchmark scores on standardized tests are a graduation requirement. The MTA’s initiative would not stop MCAS testing; it would simply make it so that students would no longer need to meet the benchmark scores of 472 in English Language Arts, 486 in Math and 220 in Science and Technology in order to graduate.

According to Justin Brown, seventeen-year teacher at the Lawrence school and president of the BEU, the initiative is wildly popular. In January, the MTA submitted their petition to the Secretary of the Commonwealth. The union submitted 135,000 signatures, which the BEU helped to collect, far exceeding the 75,000 signatures required to put the petition in front of the state legislature. The legislature now has until spring to pass legislation in response to the petition. If the legislature does not act, Brown said the MTA will have to collect another 15,000 signatures to put the petition on the November 2024 general state ballot.

English teacher Kevin Wang said he is not a fan of MCAS and supports the initiative. He said he finds it strange that a graduation requirement is determined by people who do not necessarily interact with students on a regular basis.

“The people who are most qualified to comment on what kids need are the people who are in the community,” Wang said. “So that’s, in some ways, the students themselves. In many ways, it’s the teachers, the administrators, the people and the support staff who are with the students every day.”

The role of teachers and staff in determining graduation eligibility particularly stands out to Wang, who co-teaches a class with a special education teacher for students who are neurodivergent. He said, particularly towards the start of the second semester as MCAS dates approach, he feels obligated to teach to the test, which takes away from what he might otherwise be teaching.

Brown expressed similar sentiments and said he feels that the MCAS is not a useful tool for teachers.

“The MCAS is administered in the spring and you don’t see the results of them until the fall. By then, your students are obviously long gone,” Brown said. “And of course, when you do get the assessment data, it doesn’t correlate to particular questions. It’s very difficult to understand how students are doing in your classroom.”

Senior Bella Jacopille said she does not feel like the MCAS is a good evaluation of her academic ability.

“I don’t feel like it’s all that helpful,” Jacopille said. “I don’t feel like the questions are ever really that representative of what we learn in school.”

Another reason Brown calls the MCAS graduation requirement inequitable is because higher-income students, who disproportionately score higher on the MCAS, are more likely to be able to access tutors or spend time studying for the test when compared to lower-income students.

In addition to the performance disparities across income levels, Black, Hispanic, Latino and Indigenous students disproportionately obtain lower scores on the MCAS when compared to white and Asian students, including in Brookline.

Across the state, there are about 700 students each year who meet all other graduation requirements but are not eligible to graduate because they do not pass the 10th grade MCAS. However, according to Assistant Head of School Hal Mason, that almost never happens in Brookline. The vast majority of Brookline students meet or exceed expectations on the test. Mason said he does not remember the last time a Brookline student was ineligible to graduate solely because of the 10th grade MCAS. He said if someone was not eligible to graduate, it was always because of a credit requirement.

“The whole testing thing doesn’t make sense locally for Brookline High School. It’s not really an issue,” Mason said. “It’s certainly something that’s much more of an issue state-wide, and we’re part of the state, so we’re part of a system that doesn’t really serve us well. It’s not really something that’s a major focus for the school. It’s almost an annoyance.”

According to Brown, there has hardly been any pushback to the initiative in Brookline. But on a state level, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and the Massachusetts High Technology Council have opposed the initiative, claiming that it will lower education standards. But Brown maintained that standards would not be lowered, simply changed.

“The nature of MCAS is that it’s a high-stakes standardized testing regime,” Brown said. “Students who aren’t particularly good test takers might not perform well on it, and it has lasting implications for them.”

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