‘Standardized Test Scores Are for Politicians, Not Teachers’: Ottoson Teachers Discuss the MCAS Debate


Samantha R.

As spring progresses, it’s approaching the time of year when Massachusetts public school students in grades 3-12 take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, better known as MCAS. MCAS is Massachusetts’ standardized testing system, meant to assess teachers in how well they taught reading, writing, math, and science material; and students in how much they have retained. MCAS and standardized testing in general is controversial under the best of circumstances, and this school year has been marked by chaos and upheaval as school systems attempt to navigate the never-before-seen circumstances of a modern global pandemic. Many educators have strong feelings about whether or not these tests should be administered during such unprecedented times. 

Thus far, Massachusetts public schools have been operating under various remote and hybrid models of learning, depending on the district. However, on March 5th, the Massachusetts State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted eight-to-three to give the Education Commissioner, Jeffrey C. Riley, the authority to require schools currently using a hybrid model to fully reopen this spring. Elementary schoolers returned to school full-time on April 5th and middle schoolers will do the same on April 27th. Families who still want to keep their students in a fully remote program have the option to do so. The same day as the reopening decision was made, the Massachusetts Department of Education stated that MCAS start dates would be postponed. Grades three, four, and five will begin MCAS on May 5th, and all the tests will be concluded by June 11th. This postponement’s purpose is to allow elementary schoolers to adjust to new routines, according to a state education spokesperson. Testing dates for middle and high school students have not been determined as of April 8th, but are expected to follow a similar pattern. 

Before any full reopening plans were solidified, however, the state was already planning modifications for the spring MCAS testing. On January 5th, Commissioner Riley issued a memo outlining plans for the tests. “The Department [of Education] continues to believe the MCAS test is a crucial diagnostic tool to promote student success and educational equity and we remain committed to administering the assessment this spring, while recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility,” it said. Riley then proceeded to describe changes that were going to be made for this year’s tests: adjusting the graduation requirements for high school seniors to exclude MCAS scores, shortened testing time for grades three through eight, accountability relief for schools, and expanding the testing window for ACCESS testing (a standardized test taken by English Language Learner students) and the ninth-grade biology test. [MCAS is] coming from the federal government, and it’s part of national education law that says we have to have these competency tests for all the kids in the state. So, I think what the state is doing is trying to make it as minimal as possible […] they still have to give the tests unless the federal government says they don’t,” says Ms. Keyes, who is president of the Arlington Education Association (the Arlington’s teachers’ union) and a seventh-grade global studies teacher at Ottoson. She adds that she appreciates the state’s efforts to minimize the impact of MCAS on kids, given that the Biden administration has not (and likely will not) issue waivers to states giving them the option to skip testing for the 2020-21 school year. Two other teachers, eighth-grade English teacher Ms. Packer and seventh and eighth-grade remote math teacher Ms. Galante, are also pleased with the modifications, especially the shortened testing times. “Normally, as an eighth-grader, you would do six days of testing. [The fact] that we’ve cut that in half; I think that was a good decision,” says Ms. Galante. Ms. Packer asserts that she has seen that standardized tests can be “exhausting” for students and that it “wipes them out.” She said that she is very excited at the possibility that the same data about academic performance could be collected in a shorter period of testing time. Commissioner Riley has also proposed that this year’s 11th graders, the class of 2022, be exempted from having to pass the MCAS in order to graduate high school next year. This proposition is still pending approval by the BESE. Although the announcement came after her interview with the Insider, Ms. Packer mentioned that she did not like the fact that passing MCAS is part of what determines if students can graduate high school or not. “I don’t like it as a graduation requirement. I think that puts too much pressure on students who are already [under] pressure. They’re trying to look at colleges, and they’ve got to take a test for that; they’re trying to take AP tests and Honors tests, and too many tests is overwhelming.” 

Even despite these modifications, many people and organizations are calling for MCAS to be canceled entirely this year. Massachusetts’ 116,000-member teachers’ union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), supports cancellation, as does the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS). On March 12th, MASS released a four-page document outlining their reasons why the state should replace MCAS with “local formative and benchmark assessments.” The document encouraged Commissioner Riley and Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser to advocate for the US Department of Education to issue a testing waiver to Massachusetts, and if such a waiver were to be granted, for state legislators to vote in favor of it. MTA president Merrie Najimy also issued a statement on behalf of the MTA on March 5th that followed a similar trend. “We believe the state should be pressing the federal government for a waiver from having to administer these tests – not simply postponing them.” The statement went on to say that the results of MCAS tests administered this spring would not be valid and the testing would cause unnecessary stress. “This is one interesting example where the Association of School Superintendents and the Massachusetts Teachers Association seem to be on the same page, and that doesn’t happen often,” remarks Ms. Galante. On March 31st, 29 of the 40 Massachusetts state senators sent Commissioner Riley and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker a letter asking that the tests be delayed until the fall. Six federal lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, have signed a letter to the federal government requesting that the previously mentioned waiver be granted. When asked by the Insider whether she agrees that MCAS should be canceled, Ms. Packer said that it should. “I think it’s a good idea to cancel because we do not need this data,” she said. “I think that Massachusetts wants to have this data to say ‘look how badly this year went in [the] remote world,’ and I don’t believe it is the disaster they make it out to be. […] I think we’re doing the best we can and we’re learning as much as we can, and that’s what we expect any year.” Ms. Keyes agrees and says, of the tests in general, “My brutally honest opinion: MCAS is useless. Standardized test scores are for politicians, not teachers. So, the information you get from MCAS will tell a politician something about the school, but it’s nothing that the teachers didn’t already know. I’ve never learned anything from an MCAS score that I didn’t know from having a kid in my class.”

Despite the vocal opposition, all three teachers recognize that there certainly are upsides to holding the tests. Ms. Galante says that she isn’t sure she has “a fully formed opinion” on whether or not the tests are effective in determining the competency of students and teachers in the material they have taught and learned, though, she says, she has done a lot of reading about the pros and cons of standardized testing. She also notes that she has previously worked in two other school districts, “and the experience in MCAS is very different in each of those.” Ms. Packer and Ms. Galante, in connection to Ms. Keyes’ aforementioned comment about the politics of MCAS scores, both bring up the fact that standardized testing provides schools with federal funding. “They’re sort of a necessary evil,” says Ms. Packer. Ms. Galante adds that “[MCAS is] federally mandated and we need the funding.” Ms. Keyes remarks on the fact that some people just “like to have data.” Lastly, Ms. Packer points out that MCAS can be effective in helping teachers improve their teaching methods. She says that MCAS allows teachers to re-examine how they are teaching concepts that students are not understanding on the tests.  Then, she said, they can figure out how to better approach those concepts next time. 

The Massachusetts Department of Education has said that students in grades three through eight will have the opportunity to take MCAS remotely in order to accommodate those students whose families have chosen to keep them remote for the rest of the school year. When the teachers were asked what they thought of the potential of remote MCAS, reactions varied. Ms. Keyes expressed concern about the validity of the results. “How do you know somebody’s not sitting there giving the kid the answers?” she asked. She mentioned that in trials of remote MCAS conducted this winter, a Chrome plug-in that monitors internet activity of students during the tests was used. However, she still expressed skepticism about the reliability of test results. Ms. Galante, on the other hand, who has been teaching remotely all year, feels that remote students would be able to handle MCAS from home. “I can tell you, I’ve been super impressed with how [my students] have done in the Remote Academy […] [they] have been incredibly honest as students; [they] have been incredibly on top of things in a way that leads me to believe it could be done.” 

The issue of MCAS and standardized testing is nuanced and complicated. Although the tests will almost certainly go forward for Arlington students this spring, there are still conversations to be had about the effectiveness and impact of these exams. For now, Ms. Keyes says, “we make do. If the state says we have to do it, we do it, and, you know, we’ll make it as minimally impactful as possible.”