POV: It’s Time to Reimagine School Accountability beyond Standardized Tests
Commonwealth’s MCAS tests fail to support diverse students and to cultivate the diversity of knowledge and skills they need to thrive in a complex, ever-changing world
The 2021 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores released last month revealed what one would expect after a year of disrupted learning amid a global pandemic: an overall drop in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the English language arts, math, and science exams from when the tests were last administered in 2019. They also showed pronounced achievement gaps for students identified as Black, Hispanic/Latino, economically disadvantaged, or English learners—students whose communities were hit hardest in Massachusetts by the pandemic.
Yet these MCAS results are limited in measuring learning loss. They do not account for the loss of family, friends, and financial security, the emotional scars, or the ongoing anxiety that youth have experienced. Nor do they account for the resilient ways in which students have stepped up when they have been asked to adapt to social distancing and wearing masks, learning virtually in less-than-ideal environments, and caring for younger siblings at home.
However, the MCAS have always measured school success in narrow terms. As the education community takes stock of how to tackle the immense challenges students and schools continue to face, we have a golden opportunity to redefine what success looks like for students and how to hold schools accountable in ways that actually support equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.
The MCAS were born out of the standards-based reform movement that swept over the United States in the 1990s. The tests became Massachusetts’ way of complying with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 federal policy that required all states to measure adequate yearly progress of student reading and math achievement in grades 3 to 8 and grade 10. Proponents argued that all students should receive an excellent education, defining excellence as equal access to high standards. They also argued that equity could be achieved through standardized tests that reported disaggregated results by student race, poverty level, English proficiency, and special education status.
More than 20 years later, these standardized tests have not achieved the policy goals of equity or excellence. First, standardized tests are themselves a biased yardstick that perpetuates structural racism and inequality. The early 20-th century psychologists who developed them supported the eugenics movement and intended these tests to sort and rank individuals by race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Early standardized tests were normed on samples of native-born, middle-class, European-American children. While today, a Bias and Sensitivity Committee vets the MCAS for concerning questions, harmful questions still slip through. (As recently as 2019, a test question asked students to write a journal entry from the perspective of a racist character from Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad.)
The fact that the MCAS achievement gap between Black and white, Latino and white, English learners and non-English learners, and economically disadvantaged and non–economically disadvantaged students has persisted since long before the pandemic suggests that 1) tests focused on a single, white-centric standard of achievement are not appropriate measures for an education system that serves diverse students and 2) results of standardized tests like the MCAS reflect the extent to which educational policies, practices, and structures have systematically failed Black, brown, non-native English-speaking, and low-income students, rather than individual student performance.
The MCAS have also failed to deliver on providing an excellent education. Students today are living and breathing societal challenges—pandemic, climate change, extremism, polarization, digital misinformation, to name a few—that require creative, multifaceted, collaborative solutions. But rather than provide students the interdisciplinary knowledge and skills needed to address these challenges, high-stakes testing pushes schools to focus on isolated subject areas. For example, numerous studies have documented a severe reduction in social studies instruction since the passage of NCLB. This is part of a broader trend of innovative curricular reforms addressing deeper learning and social-emotional development, whereby researchers have found that standardized tests are consistently perceived by teachers and school leaders as a barrier to successful implementation.
Put simply, the standards-based reforms designed to address inequitable access to an excellent education both perpetuate inequities and reduce opportunities for students to experience a rigorous, relevant, well-rounded curriculum. The policy goal of ensuring schools provide equitable opportunities and outcomes for all students is a valid one. But the MCAS, as a policy solution, has failed to support the commonwealth’s diverse students and failed to cultivate the diversity of knowledge and skills students will need to thrive and survive in our complex, ever-changing world. As we return to a new reality of schooling in the long shadow of COVID-19, now is a vital time to ask what truly matters for students to learn and how to best hold schools accountable for validating and valuing the lived experiences, cultures, and dreams of each of our students.
Ariel Tichnor-Wagner is a Wheelock College of Education & Human Development lecturer and managing faculty director of the Wheelock Educational Policy Center (WEPC). Her research focuses on education policy and politics, with an emphasis on policy and program implementation, continuous improvement research, school improvement, civics education, and global citizenship education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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