Created as a means of testing students' achievement levels against established curriculum frameworks, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams have become one of the most controversial educational tools in Massachusetts history.
Like most of the current aspects of Massachusetts education reform, MCAS has its roots in McDuffy v. Robertson, a lawsuit charging that the state had failed to provide adequate educational opportunities to the state's poorest children. In a 1992 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court supported that contention, and ordered the state to remedy the situation. State legislators responded to the ruling with the Education Reform Act of 1993. Among the Act's provisions was a call for the creation of curriculum frameworks.
Frameworks were to provide a comprehensive outline of the skills and knowledge each student would be expected to attain in various subjects including Mathematics, English, History, and the Sciences. Periodic assessments would measure students' progress toward achieving these learning goals. In order to graduate from high school, students would have to attain a minimum level of proficiency.
The specific wording of the Education Reform Act required that "the system shall employ a variety of assessment instruments" to measure student proficiency. But since the passage of the Act, the DOE has endorsed only one method of assessment: MCAS testing. Developed by a private test-preparation firm and administered by school personnel, the MCAS tests consist of multiple choice, short answer, and open-ended essay-type questions designed to measure student performance against state curriculum frameworks. Each test covers a single subject area. With few exceptions, all students, including those with disabilities and limited English proficiency, are required to take MCAS.
The first round of MCAS testing was conducted in May 1998, with students in 4th, 8th, and 10th grade tested in Mathematics, Science and Technology, and English Language Arts. The test results, released the following fall, showed the vast majority of students performing at "Needs Improvement" or "Failing" levels. Some 74% of tenth graders scored in those categories for Mathematics. Eighty-one percent of fourth graders scored in those ranges on the English Language Arts test. Grade 8 English Language Arts scores reflected the highest level of achievement. Still, only 55% of those students reached the "Proficient" or "Advanced" range.
When the results were released, officials at the Department of Education and other MCAS advocates urged the public to view them with an eye on the future. The tests, MCAS supporters said, were meant to be challenging, and it was expected that many students would fail. But MCAS would provide the diagnostic information necessary to realign teaching with the curriculum frameworks, deliver resources to the students, teachers, and schools most in need of them, and improve student learning.
Critics of MCAS attacked the tests as superficial, overly difficult, and a poor assessment tool. Further, they argued that MCAS placed an unfair burden on children with disabilities and limited English proficiency. Pointing out that the tests were longer than both the SAT and the Massachusetts Bar Exam, the critics warned that preparation for such a lengthy and comprehensive test would consume valuable learning time. Facing MCAS, they said, teachers would begin to "teach to the test" instead of to the curriculum frameworks.
In 2000, students in grades four, eight, and ten took the MCAS tests in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science and Technology. Eighth graders also were tested in History and Social Science. Forty-five percent of the nearly 55,000 10th grade students who took the 2000 MCAS Math test failed; 34% failed the English component.
The Department of Education responded to criticism of MCAS in a number of ways. The length of 4th grade tests was reduced. Testing was spread out over other grade levels to minimize the impact on any single academic year. Students with disabilities were able to apply for special accommodations, including the ability to dictate responses to a test administrator. Students with limited English proficiency were allowed to use bilingual dictionaries and electronic translators that provide word-to-word translations, but not definitions. The DOE also sought bids for the preparation of an alternate assessment for significantly disabled students.
Still, with high failure rates continuing to plague many districts, criticism of MCAS grew more strident. At their November 2000 meeting, the members of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees voted 137-30 to ask the Legislature to indefinitely suspend the MCAS graduation requirement. Days later, the Massachusetts Teachers Association began airing television ads that also called for the elimination of the MCAS graduation requirement.
Despite the continued criticism, the Department of Education stayed the course. Starting with the class of 2003, the DOE maintained, students would take the test more seriously. Because the scores would count toward graduation, students would buckle down and test scores would improve dramatically.
In spring 2001, Massachusetts sophomores took MCAS for the first time knowing that their test results counted. When scores were released in the fall of 2001, scores appeared to support the DOE's predictions. In Math, 75% passed the exam, up from 55% in 2000. In English, 82% passed, up from 66%. Overall, 67% of students passed both the English and Math MCAS tests on their first try.
As the state trumpeted the results, MCAS critics took a closer look and found them suspect. Among the critics was Boston political columnist David A. Mittell, Jr., who argued that the improvement in tenth-grade MCAS scores could be accounted for by a high ninth-grade retention rate the previous year. This retention, he said, kept the students who would have scored lowest from taking the MCAS. Others questioned whether improved scores might be linked to a change in scoring methods and noted the high percentage of failures represented by African American and Latino students.
Still, perhaps the most stinging criticism of MCAS in 2001 was delivered by the president of the company that makes the test. In a talk at a Chatham high school and in an interview with the Boston Herald, Eugene Paslov, President of Harcourt Educational Measurement, stated that MCAS should not be used as a single graduation criterion. "It is an industry standard that we recommend no single test be used for high-stakes purposes," Paslov said.
Toward the end of 2001, the heat over the MCAS graduation requirement began to rise. Several districts, including the Hampshire Regional School District, began to consider granting diplomas to students who failed MCAS but completed the required course of studies. The DOE warned that this practice would be illegal; Hampshire insisted it would not.
As the class of 2003 nears graduation, Governor Romney announced that 90% of seniors passed the English and math sections of the MCAS after the December 2002 test. Still, the racial and social gaps remain a concern. While 94% of Caucasian students passed both exams, only 75% of black students and 70% of Hispanic students did. Ninety-four percent of students in non-urban areas passed, compared to 79% in urban communities.
The DOE has worked to craft an appeals system that would allow students who failed MCAS to be eligible for graduation. Under the criteria, approved by the DOE in January 2002, students would need to have taken the grade 10 MCAS at least three times; scored at least a 216 on the exam at least once; maintained at least a 95% attendance level during the previous school year and the year of the appeal; and participated in the tutoring and academic support services made available by the school.
The DOE is moving to expand the scope of MCAS testing. In spring 2001, tenth graders also took the MCAS in History and Social Science. In the future, graduation requirements will include the MCAS History test, as well as tests in Science and Technology/Engineering and World Languages.
By March 2003, nearly 1,000 performance appeals from the class of 2003 were approved. Students who meet graduation requirements can take a competency evaluation in the summer in order to graduate. The Governor has budgeted $53 million towards MCAS remediation, including 24-hour online tutoring and opportunities to attend community colleges.