BOSTON (SHNS) – Proponents of two potential ballot initiatives aimed at ending the requirement that students pass a standardized test in order to graduate have joined together on a single campaign.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association and a Lexington mom independently filed similar initiative petitions to uncouple the tenth grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam from graduation requirements.
The MCAS exams were created under a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.
The MTA has long opposed the exam as a graduation requirement, saying that it forces teachers to “teach to the test,” takes away classroom time and is a “rank and shame” accountability measure.
Shelley Scruggs, a Lexington resident and mother to a 15-year-old boy, filed her petition on behalf of her son, who she said does well in school but “isn’t a great test taker.”
“He works hard,” Scruggs said about her son. “And he can do all this hard work, can get really good grades in class, go to school every day, and be set up to do a great job at what he wants to do — and still not get a diploma. I just thought that’s criminal.”
The MTA filed their own version of the ballot question earlier this month.
MTA President Max Page said that having one ballot question on the November 2024 ballot related to the MCAS graduation requirement will be less confusing for voters.
“We all share the same goals of maintaining high standards in Massachusetts schools and ensuring that every student granted a diploma has mastered academic skills aligned with state curriculum frameworks,” Page said. “Massachusetts residents are ready to join the vast majority of states that have scrapped the use of standardized tests as a graduation requirement and instead use authentic, educator-designed assessments of student skills. The MCAS will still be taken, as is required by federal law, but it will be used for diagnostic purposes, and not as a high-stakes test required for earning a diploma.”
Scruggs’ defaulted to the union’s version of the MCAS ballot question, though there are some differences between their proposals.
In place of requiring passage of the exam to graduate, the language in Scruggs’ petition would have required that schools determine “competency” to graduate by “participation in the assessment program without any requirement for minimum demonstrated level of performance.”
Students would have to take the exam in tenth grade, aiming to demonstrate a “minimum level of competency (as defined by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education)”. If the students’ test results do not meet this minimum level, they would have to take the test again. If they failed to meet the minimum twice, they would still be allowed to graduate, under Scruggs’ petition.
The MTA’s petition, in contrast, asks voters to replace the MCAS graduation requirement with a locally developed certification of academic proficiency.
“My co-signers and I embarked on a ballot initiative as enthusiastic parent advocates to end the MCAS requirement for graduation,” said Scruggs in a statement. “We were both relieved and excited to learn that the Committee to Eliminate Barriers to Student Success for All was also gearing up for this fight and had the backing of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and its allies.”
Supporters of the exams say they provide valuable data on school performance and achievement gaps that can then be targeted with funding and interventions, and the graduation requirement gives more weight to a Massachusetts diploma.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, who supports maintaining the assessment as is, said in a statement that eliminating the requirement would leave schools without a common standard of achievement across all students.
“Importantly, we know from Brown University research that ‘high school MCAS scores predict long-term success and appear to reflect students’ academic skills,’ not simply socio-economic status or school characteristics …. We can’t eliminate gaps in achievement and equity if we strip ourselves of the tools to measure them,” MBAE said. “Instead of wasting time fighting for legislation that does away with the graduation standard, a true commitment to equity requires we focus squarely on helping all students meet it.”
If the attorney general deems the proposals eligible for the ballot, supporters face significant signature-gathering requirements to lock in a spot on the November 2024 ballot. The measure’s existence could also prompt the Legislature to step in and craft a solution that would satisfy the petitioners.