BOSTON  (State House News Service) – A majority of Massachusetts residents support requiring students to pass a U.S. history standardized test to graduate from public high school, according to new poll results.

Of the 1,000 participants surveyed by the Emerson College Polling Center, 61.9 percent said they strongly or somewhat support reinstituting the passage of a U.S. history Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test as a graduation requirement, while 21 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat oppose the move. The rest of the respondents, 17.1 percent, said they were neutral or took no position.

“State residents know that suspending the history graduation requirement has relegated history and social studies to second-class status in the commonwealth’s public schools,” said Jamie Gass, director of school reform at the Pioneer Institute, which commissioned the poll. “And they’re not happy about it.”

The think tank’s values, according to its website, include “an America where our citizenry is well-educated and willing to test our beliefs based on facts and the free exchange of ideas,”
“committed to liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise.”

Lawmakers created the MCAS system in a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were administered in 1998, and students have been required to achieve sufficient scores to graduate since the class of 2003.

In 2009, the state education commissioner and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to waive the history and social science MCAS requirement.

The education commissioner at the time, Mitchell Chester, said he did “not come lightly to this decision” and that he believed history and social science are part of a well-rounded curriculum.

“As we increase requirements for graduation, we need to ensure that districts are adequately resourced to provide support for students, particularly those who may struggle to meet the new requirements,” Chester said in 2009. “I believe that it would be imprudent to add history to the graduation requirement at a time when budgets are so tight that funding for academic support and other services for students is likely to be scaled back significantly.”

The new poll found that 80 percent of respondents believe Massachusetts public school students should study the country’s founding and history, compared to 7 percent who disagree.

The 1993 education reform law that created the MCAS system also created standards for each core academic subject, including history and the social sciences. It directed that the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers are required parts of the history curriculum.

The most recent update to the Massachusetts history curriculum in 2018 includes an increased emphasis on civic education, “inclusion of standards that reflect the diversity of the United States and world cultures, with particular attention to the contributions of women and men of all ethnicities and backgrounds in the United States,” expanded use of primary sources such as maps, photographs, art and architecture and new standards for financial and news literacy, according to Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

The Pioneer Institute published a study in 2018 in response to this new curriculum, claiming it degraded the state’s K-12 history standards.

“It replaces the earlier framework’s full account of our country’s European past and replaces much of it with ‘the history of politically correct protest movements,’ ” and “allots insufficient time for students to learn European and American history,” the think tank argued at the time.

“Americans’ ignorance of history and their institutions is a regular punch line on the late-night comedy shows,” said Jim Stergios, the think tank’s executive director, in a statement about the recent study concerning MCAS graduation requirements. “The current state of political and public debate in our country is a direct result of a disinvestment and lack of attention to these topics in school.”

The institute also said in 2018 that the elimination of the history MCAS assessment allows for the substitution of “hollow” graduation expectations.

Despite some still-strong support for the MCAS tests, some lawmakers, educators, and others have advocated for the total elimination of the assessment or decoupling the MCAS from graduation.

Rep. Jim Hawkins of Attleboro and Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton this session filed a bill (S 293 / H 612) that would have removed MCAS passage from graduation requirements and instead offered other pathways for students to prove they meet the benchmarks to complete high school, some of which would not have required a standardized test. The bill was sent to a dead-end study by the Education Committee, but Hawkins told the Sun Chronicle in June that he plans to refile the legislation next session.

Still, many, including Commissioner Riley, say MCAS scores are an important tool to “predict later outcomes in education and earning,” and the Board of Education voted this summer to raise the minimum score that this year’s incoming freshman class and at least the four classes that follow will have to attain on the English language arts, math, and science and technology/engineering test in order to graduate.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus percent and was conducted between Nov. 11 and Nov. 14.