The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System recently came under scrutiny following state legislators’ proposal to eliminate the test as a graduation requirement for high school students.
In a series of interviews, experts in public policy and psychometry — the psychological study of educational measures — at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, explained why they believe less emphasis should be placed on diagnostic tests.
Paul Reville, a professor of education policy and administration at HGSE, explained that current concerns around the MCAS exams are due to its “high-stakes” nature.
“I think most of the controversy around MCAS centers around whether or not there ought to be stakes attached to it. Now generally, psychometricians agree that it's improper — inappropriate — to attach high stakes to any single test,” Reville said.
HGSE professor of education Andrew D. Ho — who holds a seat on the Technical Advisory Committee for the MCAS — said that speaking solely from his capacity as a professor, the way exams are used, rather than their content, is what determines whether they are “good” or “bad.”
“You can always take what is a ‘good test used for good purposes’, and then immediately make it bad by trying to put very high stakes on it, for example, without adequate evidence to support that use,” Ho said.
In addition to issues with the stakes involved, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said that focusing exclusively on diagnostic testing takes away from the ability to examine other issues schools and students face — particularly those in districts with higher populations of color.
“Schools in communities of color don't have the same resources,” Najimy explained. “They have fewer teachers, so they have higher class sizes. They don't have full time librarians or nurses in the schools.”
“And yet, MCAS has become the single measure of student performance, rather than looking at what are the resources students need to succeed,” she added.
Ho said he advocates for a model in which testing shifts away from “individual high stakes” and toward a system that works on improving issues of educational inequity.
“We need to shift [testing] to the monitoring quadrant, away from individual high stakes and unattainably high goals, to a monitoring system that allocates support where it is most necessary and deserved,” Ho said.
Najimy called for assessments that do not only measure student performance, but address issues impeding healthy school environments.
“We should certainly measure student performance, but we need to start measuring the quality of schools,” Najimy said. “So those are things like, ‘What are the building conditions? Are the ventilation systems in full repair so they can control mold and airborne diseases, like the flu and like Covid?’”
Najimy also said curricula should be revisted.
“We absolutely have to start to evaluate the curriculum. Does our curriculum represent the multiple identities that our students possess? And is it a curriculum that reflects the rich cultures and the assets that they bring to school?” Najimy said.
Reville said he believes attempts to tackle issues of inequity in Massachusetts schools and beyond have generally been ineffective.
“We haven't been very effective at the federal, state, or even local level in turning around pockets of chronic underperformance, and that's where we need to strengthen our investments and build our capacity, and do much better than we've done,” Reville said.
—Staff writer Omar Abdel Haq can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.