Perhaps no four letters have inspired as much debate in Massachusetts as M-C-A- S.
Known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Accountability System, the MCAS grew out of the state’s decade-old education reform act, which also led to major changes in school finance and statewide curriculum.
The graduating class of 2003 was the first required to pass the MCAS tests in English and mathematics to graduate. For years, educators, parents, and students nervously eyed this deadline. With the results in and 91 percent of students passing, much of that anxiety has faded. But determining whether a student graduates based on a single exam has been divisive.
In recent years, hundreds of students boycotted the MCAS. Education advocacy groups calling for “authentic reform” offered alternatives. And Massachusetts’ largest teachers’ union launched a $600,000 advertising campaign attacking the tests as “flawed and unfair.”
While critics still maintain that lawmakers exceeded their authority when they adopted a high-stakes exam, most of the boycotts have stopped, and a federal judge recently upheld the state’s graduation policy.
Several factors have played a role in the survival of the tests. The state’s business community is firmly behind the exam, and Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll has been an unwavering proponent. (“Mass. Chief Steers Steady Course Through Conflicts,” March 5, 2003.)
Similarly, the state political establishment, including recent governors, have viewed the MCAS as critical to raising standards. Perhaps most importantly, better performance on the exam has supported proponents’ claims that scores would rise once the MCAS became a graduation requirement.
While “the flame burns in the hearts of the committed advocates” to fight the MCAS graduation requirement, the public seems to have more acceptance of it, said Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. That group, the district superintendents’ association and the state teachers’ unions, oppose the MCAS.
Mr. Koocher credits MCAS foes with pushing the state to offer more support networks and an appeals process for students who have failed. He said the MCAS and other accountability measures have been a wakeup call. “Everyone’s attention is now fully focused on achievement,” he said. “But an extraordinary amount of stress and anger goes along with that.”