Massachusetts Exam Under Attack

K-12 Testing

While the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) prepares to spend millions to sell its high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test to an increasingly skeptical public, new forces are swelling the ranks of the exam's opposition every month.

Dozens of local school boards, prompted by parent and teacher campaigns, passed resolutions critical of the MCAS last summer and fall. The campaign culminated in a 137-30 vote at the Mass. Association of School Committees convention in November, calling on the state to suspend its use of the MCAS to determine high school graduation until major questions about the exam have been addressed, including adoption of multiple measures to determine graduation. With this vote, local elected officials who are closest to the classrooms sent a clear message to the legislature: "This test isn't working."

Gov. Paul Cellucci and the DOE immediately scrambled to portray opposition to the test as almost entirely middle-class and suburban (even though many big city school committees voted against the MCAS). Urban parents, they claimed, support the MCAS because it will hold school systems accountable.

A week later, voters in six urban legislative districts with substantial populations of working class and minority families proved the state wrong once again. A campaign waged by the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE) in alliance with other groups resulted in a 2-1 victory on Election Day. A total of 39,430 voters from six State Representatives' districts voted in favor of a nonbinding ballot question which called for an end to the high-stakes use of MCAS, its replacement with more fair and accurate ways to assess student and school progress, and other measures to defend public education.

Parents in some communities have taken their MCAS message to branches of municipal government. In Brookline, the entire Town Meeting (the basic form of government in many smaller New England communities) voted overwhelmingly against the graduation requirement connected to MCAS. And in one of the most significant urban developments to date, the Boston City Council passed a resolution critical of the MCAS.

In response to the public outcry against the test, the DOE has announced it will spend $1.5 million on an advertising campaign to “educate” the public about the MCAS, a move it contends is necessary because of the “misinformation” that so many people have about the test. This is despite years of unrelenting test support from many politicians, corporate leaders, and media outlets.

In a legislative response to the growing anti-MCAS campaign, more than 30 bills were filed for the 2001 session of the Massachusetts Legislature, calling for remedies ranging from abandoning the exam altogether, to exempting certain populations of students, to suspending the tests until resources are distributed more equitably among communities. The Mass. Teachers Association has filed legislation which
would scrap the MCAS-con-nected graduation requirement and replace the testing program with a fair assessment system similar to that proposed by CARE (see Examiner, Fall 1999).

Pressure on legislators is mounting as the April testing period approaches. This spring is the first time the test will count for students: this year's 10th graders must pass the English and math portions of the exam by 2003 in order to graduate from high school. Many parents are just beginning to realize the impact of the exam on their children's future.

• CARE's alternative assessment proposal is online at, or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to CARE Alternatives at FairTest.