By Katie Lannan
State officials are exploring the possibility of administering some MCAS tests in a take-home format in the spring and are looking into options for exams scheduled for this winter, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday.
After Massachusetts schools abruptly transitioned to remote learning in March as COVID-19 cases first began to climb, education officials sought and received a federal waiver and legislative authorization allowing them to cancel MCAS testing this past spring. The state is now grappling with a second surge of COVID-19 cases and, two months into the new school year, most schools have not returned to fully in-person learning.
The turmoil facing students has led some lawmakers and teachers unions to call for skipping the assessments another year, though Baker administration education officials have described the test as an important tool for gauging the pandemic’s effects on student learning. The administration has also been calling for schools to resume at least some in-person instruction and to use entirely remote models only as a last resort.
“The bottom line is, we need to redouble our efforts to reopen classrooms for in-person learning both now and as we prepare for the new year,” Education Secretary James Peyser told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday. “At the same time, we must also stay the course on administering statewide assessments next spring to ensure we get accurate, timely and actionable diagnostic data on student learning and learning loss during this unprecedented school year.”
Riley told superintendents earlier this fall that he was planning on administering MCAS tests next spring and said Tuesday that federal guidance has indicated that “testing will go forward as planned, and that blanket waivers should not be expected this year.”
“Of course, this could change with the changeover to the next administration,” he said.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tweaked its testing schedule this school year and plans to conduct English and math MCAS tests for high schoolers in January and May. Testing for students in grades three through eight is expected in April and May.
“When we think about the winter testing, as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, we acknowledge the number of students, schools and districts affected by COVID has increased,” Riley said. “We are continuing to look into the options available to us for the testing that is occurring in the winter. I am not announcing any changes today regarding the tests that are scheduled for January through March, but we’ll monitor the situation closely and make a determination very soon if our approach to testing changes.”
For spring testing, Riley said the department is looking at the possibility of some take-home exams, which he said “might — I want to stress ‘might’ — be available in certain limited cases.”
The department is also looking at “how we may be able to relieve the burdens on students and schools in terms of the amount of time that each individual student spends on the test,” he said.
During the board’s public comment period, Christine Spelman, a graduation coach at Springfield High School of Science and Technology, said the testing schedule poses “a logistical nightmare for schools that have been fully remote.”
Spelman said her school does not know when it will resume in-person instruction, and is struggling to connect with students who are working full-time to support their families, caring for younger siblings, dealing with mental health issues, or struggling with homelessness and food insecurity.
She asked that the department try to seek a waiver in January, once the new Biden administration is in office, or postpone testing until all schools have been able to bring students back to the classroom.
“Please do not add more stress and inequity to our urban districts,” she said.
Board member Matt Hills said he appreciates that the state is looking to move forward with MCAS tests.
“If we go a second year without using our common assessment, we have major, major issues with the educational system we put in place,” said Hills, a former Newton School Committee member. “You have districts who want local control, they have local control, some districts are doing things one way even this year, some are doing it the other way, and some are doing it a different way for what might be the wrong reason, and we’re not going to know and understand what kind of differences we’re seeing in educational attainment unless we look for it using a single common assessment.”
Billerica Memorial High School student Jasper Coughlin, the state education board’s new student representative, said he agrees that the MCAS is an important assessment metric but offered a note of caution around this year’s tests.
“I just really want to stress the fact that students this year specifically are less prepared to take the MCAS than we have ever been before, so when we talk about MCAS being a requirement to graduate, I think that’s something you really have to take into consideration,” he said.