Massachusetts appears headed for another high-profile, and expensive, education-related ballot initiative battle—this time, over standardized testing.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, a 115,000-member union that is a powerful political force in the state, is backing an initiative that would eliminate the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test as a high-school graduation requirement. Education reform and business groups are already beginning to mobilize to preserve the testing requirement.
If voters approve it, the initiative would change state law. Currently, passing the standardized test in math, English language arts, and one science is required for graduation. Under the proposed change, school districts would instead sign off that students had “satisfactorily” completed coursework certified as “showing mastery of the skills, competencies, and knowledge contained in the state academic standards and curriculum frameworks.”
Union leaders spearheading the campaign blame the graduation test requirement for worsening racial and economic differences.
“The MCAS has not only failed to close learning gaps that have persisted along racial and economic lines, but the standardized tests have exacerbated the disparities among our student populations. We are one of the last states using this outdated method of assessing academic mastery,” the union’s president, Max Page, and its vice president, Deb McCarthy, said in an August 6 statement.
The union leaders emphasized that they aren’t asking voters to eliminate the MCAS entirely, just to stop using it as a graduation requirement. “Indeed, the MCAS will, following federal law, continue to be taken by students,” the statement said. “At present the MCAS graduation requirement is doing nothing more than proving the wealth and education levels of parents, while also harming competent students who, for a variety of reasons, struggle with standardized tests.”
Advocates of the test firmly reject the idea that it is to blame for worsening racial or economic disparities. Voices for Academic Equity, a coalition that includes the National Parents Union, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, the Boston Schools Fund, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Educators for Excellence Massachusetts, and Education Reform Now Massachusetts, issued a report that called the test “a tool for equity.”
“The test exposes our profound societal inequities. But without it, we lose our ability to hold up those inequities and demand better opportunities for the students who are entitled to a high-quality education and have not historically received it,” the report says. “Given our nation’s history of systemic racism, MCAS serves as a mirror to see reality so we can make it better. We do not break a mirror because we don’t like its reflection.”
The Massachusetts policy director of Democrats for Education Reform, Erin Cooley, warned in a statement to Education Next that removing MCAS as a graduation requirement “would diminish the value of a Massachusetts diploma.”
“Students, parents and families across the state want high standards for their children and want schools to meet those standards,” Cooley said.
The executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Ed Lambert, told WBUR that the MCAS test and the graduation requirement had helped propel Massachusetts to the top of national achievement rankings. “Undoing it could set back Gov. Maura Healey’s efforts to make the state more economically competitive,” WBUR paraphrased Lambert as cautioning.
A statement from the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said that “Eliminating the MCAS graduation requirement would leave us without a common standard of achievement that all students, across all communities and all walks of life, in every corner of Massachusetts are expected to meet.”
If the union succeeds in winning passage of the initiative, it would be the third time in a decade that it prevailed in a statewide vote.
In 2016, Bay State voters considered a ballot resolution that would have lifted the state’s limit on charter schools, which are public schools that operate outside of the traditional school-district bureaucracy. Political spending on the question was more than $41 million, and the state’s residents wound up voting 62 percent to 38 percent to keep the cap on charters in place. It was a stunning defeat for charter-school advocates who had sponsored the initiative.
In 2022, teachers unions poured $23 million into a misleading campaign to raise Massachusetts’ state income tax to 9 percent from 5 percent on income over $1 million a year. The proceeds of the tax increase were to be spent on education and transportation. The anti-MCAS campaign is off to a similarly factually challenged start; a Boston Globe staff editorial and a Globe column by Scot Lehigh faulted the union for overstating the number of seniors that the test requirement prevented from graduation by ignoring the fact that the vast majority of students who fail the MCAS also do not meet local graduation requirements. Yet the union’s direct mailings and other paid media reach far more eyeballs than do the Globe or the similarly skeptical Contrarian Boston substack, which are behind paywalls.
The state attorney general has until September 6 to rule on whether the initiative is okay to proceed. If it gets the legal clearance, supporters will then need to gather 75,000 signatures to place the proposition on the November 2024 election ballot.
The union also supports legislation, the Thrive Act, that would both eliminate the MCAS graduation requirement and the threat of state receivership for school districts. If the legislation passes, it could render the ballot resolution moot.
In addition to the union-backed initiative, there was a separate initiative originated by Shelley Scruggs, a parent from Lexington, Massachusetts. On August 16, Scruggs and the union announced they were joining forces behind the union-backed initiative.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com. He was managing editor of Education Next from 2019 to 2023.