Opinion: On MCAS

March 30, 2019

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is a series of standardized tests given to all students in Massachusetts public schools from third to tenth grade. You probably know it as MCAS, or better yet, the Massachusetts Child Abuse System. While this alternate definition may be used in jest, its roots are held in legitimate concerns over the system.

At Mt. Greylock, students traditionally take English and math MCAS tests throughout middle school, the physics test in ninth grade, and finish with English and Math tests in tenth. To graduate from Mt. Greylock, high school students must pass a high school English, Math, and Science MCAS. This requirement ensures that all students live up to the expectations of the state, but also puts undue pressure on students and restricts teachers to certain topics.

The idea that a student’s entire high school carer can be reduced down to a few hours of testing is absolutely absurd, especially when the tests have little importance to those students who plan to immediately enter the job market. No matter how well prepared a student is, the idea of your high school diploma riding on one test is daunting. Furthermore, testing forces teachers to take time away from regular classroom activities and curricula to prepare students for testing, and then again on test days. Students miss the learning opportunities that they may actually benefit from, and are put in a forced learning environment that doesn’t encourage them to love education.

Students take the English MCAS three times throughout their career at Greylock, and on each occasion are presented with passages to read, multiple choice questions to answer, and essay prompts to respond to. While some of these prompts and passages, especially in younger grades, are not intellectually engaging, high school students are often presented with well-written pieces from some of the best-known writers. These pieces are entertaining, insightful, and fascinating. But, they are presented in a context in which students simply can’t appreciate them for their worth. Imagine if your only exposure to Dracula or Rebecca was on a standardized test? Students are often left with bad impressions of works they would truly enjoy,  and these excerpts aren’t incorporated into any classroom work or further examined. If the state of Massachusetts wanted their standardized tests to improve student’s critical thinking skills, they would encourage teachers to follow up exams with analysis and discussion.

But perhaps the most disappointing piece of MCAS English exams is the forced regurgitation of opinions held in the passages and essays. Often, students are required to support one opinion using evidence from multiple pieces of work, leaving them with little room to display their own thoughts and creativity. Students don’t learn how to develop and formulate their own opinions, and are all but coerced into supporting one opinion using details from the passages. In today’s lightning fast digital age, and the rise of misleading and false online information that has come with it, the most important skill today’s students can be taught is finding reliable sources of information, and differentiating fact from fiction. On the MCAS, students are not taught to pause and consider the author’s point of view or question whether or not the information they are provided with is accurate. Students aren’t taught the fundamental principle of education: to ask questions.

Despite all this, there are plenty of reasons why the MCAS is beneficial. At the end of the day, it does introduce students to new authors, and the transition to a digital test ensures student’s preparation for our increasingly digitized world. It upholds the standards of Massachusetts’ education system, keeping it at the forefront of the nation. It makes sure teachers are fulfilling their obligations, and allows the state to see which districts need more support. It encourages students to work hard in school and gives every student the opportunity to demonstrate their skills, maybe even earning them scholarships to Massachusetts universities.

Except, what if didn’t? A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute found that 84% of the variation in test results across districts is due to socioeconomic factors. In the end, the test is a far better indicator of student’s class status and their family’s wealth. The report concludes, “MCAS scores tell more about a district’s real estate values than the quality of its schools.”

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