My name is Jonathan Guzman, and I am the Vice-Chair of the Lawrence School Committee. I am writing to request that you exercise your authority to establish laws to protect future generations. In the wake of the appointed Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s outrageous vote to increase the MCAS passing scores, it is time for the legislature to take action and protect future generations from harmful educational laws.
One important action that you can take is to eliminate the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as a graduation requirement. Parents, teachers, students, and community advocates have repetitively raised the many concerns about raising the MCAS passing score. Yet, BESE has ignored them. BESE has ignored that standardized testing such as the MCAS do not capture the whole student and the students’ potential to succeed in the long-term. Additionally, the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) of 1993 mandated that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) design a curricular framework and standards to assist local districts in achieving their own objectives. MERA mandated BESE to design a student learning and competence evaluation. The General Court did not request that BESE produce a standardized test, but rather find a way to gather data to support each district individually. Again, student performance is poorly captured on the MCAS and is unrelated to long-term outcomes.
Students who are low-income, BIPOC, and/or immigrants have been harmed by the MCAS. I share my personal experience as an IEP, ELL student in Lawrence High School as an example. I arrived in the United States in 2010, with no English comprehension, I focused on learning the language first while following my mandated curriculum to ensure that I passed the 9th grade. In the 10th grade, I was told that I needed to take a test called the “MCAS.” I had no understanding what it was and the extremely high expectation to come. I was placed in a room with a dictionary and extra time since I had IEP, but that was insufficient. I spent most of my time interpreting and piecing phrases together so that I could respond to the questions. Those moments taking a standardized test did not allow me to share my skills or valuable cultural background. Instead, the MCAS crushed my dreams and created uncertainty about my future.
Many students with a similar background and challenges to me often times lack the resources and support to figure out standardized testing; however, we overcome these barriers, succeed and give back to our communities. But overcoming the challenges and struggles in my life taught me that I had what it takes to succeed. Refused to let the state’s dysfunctional public school system claim or accept credit for my accomplishment. It was not the MCAS or DESE who provided opportunities and paved the path for me. I am who I am now because people at the local schools and in my community did not give up on me. I was supported by people who disregarded the norms and stepped beyond the robot classroom experience enforced by BESE and DESE in our local educational system.
BESE claims that low student achievement is a district problem. What do they say when a district has been under receivership for more than 12 years? Who is to blame if DESE is in charge and the MCAS scores have not improved? By focusing narrowly on test scores, school districts have lost the opportunity to offer a broader definition of student success. Hearing a board member estimate that 3,300 children are not expected to pass but also saying that graduation rates will improve, and dropout rates will not increase is rather alarming, and I’d like to know how they make these judgments while preaching “no child left behind.” Our General Court must wake up and see the true intention of these increases. If the board decides to place a district as chronically undeforming, they must look at the indicators of student attendance, dismissal rates, exclusion rates, student promotion and graduations rates in the district. If this does not alarm you as a tactic by BESE to be able to continue placing local districts under receivership, I don’t know what will. Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts must wake up to the fact that this is a harmful policy designed to harm our students even more. Tests do not prepare children; teachers do. So why not allow them to teach and use their data like the other 39 states that do not require an exit exam in the nation?
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act, mandated a research-based assessment of student achievement to assess student knowledge. Assessments designed by teachers to understand students’ material understanding are authentic, comprehensive, culturally sensitive, and can capture classroom performance as a whole. Rather than crushing hopes, we must find a more effective manner to provide student feedback on areas for growth. When students participate in their own learning experience, the material becomes more relevant and helps teachers develop better classroom lessons. It is time to allow districts to generate honest self-evaluation in order to promote goal setting that is appropriate for their district and people they serve. However, unless we are able to completely abolish the MCAS graduation requirement, there is a risk that the existing barrier will prevent hundreds of students from earning their diploma in a few years. MCAS was not a graduation requirement until 2003, when BESE opted to turn a blind eye to all the hard work that students had to endure in order to walk across the state and say, “We Did It!” The MCAS does not provide an accurate assessment of students’ academic understanding. Instead, it has a disproportionately detrimental impact on students with disabilities, English learners, BIPOC, and low-income communities. We must recall that the pandemic highlighted the ongoing challenges that our educational system and students were suffering in silence. The MCAS results were a total failure in September, highlighting inequities and lack of cultural awareness about minority groups across the state.
BESE claims that increasing the passing scores was a thoughtful year-long process that was led by an advisory council that was transparent and diverse. However, I could find no sign of such an advisory group or its members on BESE’s Advisory Council website page. Such advisory council has not been made public and you cannot see whether it reflects the community.
Legislators must act in the forthcoming session to prohibit the MCAS as a graduation requirement. BESE says that such a requirement is not for the board to decide, and that the Educational Reform act of 1993 requires the board to determine the degree of expectation that students must satisfy. The Educational Reform Act of 1993 must be amended to prohibit BESE from introducing the MCAS as a requirement. Legislators, teachers, students, and parents have all expressed strong objections to increasing the MCAS Score. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the voices of our communities. BESE’s eight members opted not to listen to the countless families who had requested them not to engage in this predatory behavior. Every day, students earn diplomas as they enter class and progress from one grade to the next. And having a barrier like the MCAS is simply not FAIR!
Committeeman Jonathan Guzman
Vice-Chair of the Lawrence School Committee
Elected Members of District F