On Monday afternoon, Cynthia Roy was driving a carful of South Coast educators back from the state Board of Education meeting. The board had just voted 8-3 to raise the required MCAS test scores needed for graduation against the strong objections of the dozens of teachers present, a letter signed by nearly 100 state legislators, and 225 of 229 filed public comments.

“We wanted so desperately for them to turn to us and ask us questions,” explained Roy, a biology teacher and executive committee member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “They don't understand the harm that it's causing ... or what it's doing to our teaching and learning environment.”

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley had advocated for the changes in the hope of increasing the college and career readiness of Massachusetts students. After last year's MCAS scores fell, the board amended his original proposal so that the passing standards will actually become more difficult in later years.

Riley has previously cited research that demonstrates “students scoring near the passing cutoff do not fare well and do not appear to be college- or career-ready, on average.”

“For me, what was most important was I just wanted to put my oar in the water to say we need to take some time to assess what the pandemic has done for our kids,” Riley told reporters after the measure passed.

Why was public reaction so negative?

At this week’s New Bedford School Committee meeting, superintendent Thomas Anderson reacted to the vote. “I have always believed there's a level of accountability we need to have,” he began, but said these changes were “not the best way to do that.”

New Bedford's MCAS scores are regularly in the bottom quartile of the state, and Anderson acknowledged that many teachers might feel “backed into a corner” by the pressure to raise scores. Ultimately, he said, “I don't make the policies,” but Anderson said he hopes that the changes will not interfere with the district's efforts to “enhance critical and analytical thinking skills” that benefit students.

“I’m concerned with it,” said Chris Markey, state representative for Bristol’s 9th District, about the new requirements. “Especially coming out of the pandemic and the difficulties that students had with remote learning.” Markey, who has four school-aged children and is married to a teacher, explained that raising standards isn’t necessarily bad, but that the timing is.

In the classroom, teachers are worried that districts will be forced to react to the changes with “more skill and drill,” Roy said. “If you are a district that scores poorly on MCAS,” she explained, “you will get less time on art and gym and music and recess.”

The state board of education voted on Monday to increase graduation requirements as measured by MCAS, the state's testing system. Credit: Massachusetts Teachers Association

Sarah Bol, a New Bedford middle school teacher, agreed. She said already there are regular meetings about how to deliver test preparation materials. These test-prep teacher meetings usually cut into her planning time.

“It’s more than just education, it’s the educational experience,” Bol said. Instead of the skill-and-drill approach, Bol said she wishes policy makers were focused on “making the school learning environment somewhere where kids want to be.”

Bol had participated in the public comment period, telling the board on Monday: “What we don't need to do is put more pressure or anxiety on our kids.”

Last year, 54.5% of all students in New Bedford Public Schools were chronically absent, missing 10% or more of all school days. School attendance has been shown to be one of the most predictive factors for graduating high school.

Teachers note that standardized testing correlates significantly with parental income, so they believe that the new requirements would selectively transform education in low-income areas. Lessons will be less engaging, creative, and culturally responsive, they said. The same research that Riley cited for raising MCAS standards also found that “most students who fail [MCAS testing] are now from low-income families and attend urban schools.”

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“When you are just teaching to a multiple choice test, that’s not how interviews go, and that’s not how jobs go,” said Chris Saulnier, who sat in the back seat of Roy's car after the state board meeting. Saulnier, an Acushnet teacher who serves on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said he thought the state board was well-intentioned, but that their plan would have the opposite of its intended effect.

Saulnier pointed out that there will be no changes to how the state identifies or intervenes when schools struggle. “The bottom 10% of schools will still be the bottom 10%,” he said. Raising testing standards will only increase those struggling schools' focus on testing, likely at the expense of their learning time, he said.

The MCAS testing system began in 1998, but graduation cutoffs based on test results began in 2003. Under the new plan, students entering ninth grade this year must attain higher scores in English before both English and math scores increase again in 2023.

Right now, students must score a 472 in English and 486 in math to meet graduation requirements. After both years of increases, students must score 500 on both English and math.


If they fail to meet these scores, they may be eligible for alternative graduation routes, called educational proficiency plans (EPPs), but even the cutoffs for those are rising too. For this route, students will need to score a 470 on both English and math; previously they needed 455 and 469, respectively.

“MCAS is not a perfect test and, of course, we can continue to try to assess other measures of students’ success,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which was one of four organizations to register a public comment in support of the new MCAS standards.

But Lambert said he believes that “having a grounding in English and math and science … transcends certain career categories,” he told reporters after the state board meeting.

As the teachers in Cynthia Roy's car were returning to the South Coast, their conversation turned to alternatives that could replace MCAS.

“Find an alternate system that shows more of what the students are doing and what they can do, instead of multiple choice tests,” Saulnier suggested.

Roy pointed out that there are already “other things we could be looking [at] besides a standardized test,” which she pointed out were a metric first popularized during the eugenics movement. The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), for example, hopes to create an accountability system that doesn't exclusively rely on testing, she said.

Bol, meanwhile, said she thinks parents ought to become aware of how they can shape their own students' educational proficiency plans, or EPPs. According to the state, these plans are developed for any student who does not meet the “proficient” level of state testing.

“Students and families do have a voice in their EPPs,” she said.

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordschools.org