Mass. education officials vote to raise MCAS graduation requirements

"Our students don't need more testing time. They need more learning time."

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted on a controversial proposal to raise the standardized state test scores needed for students to graduate high school. People who opposed it are pictured as they leave following the vote. Jim Davis/Boston Globe

Massachusetts education officials voted Monday to raise the standardized state test scores that students will be required to earn in order to graduate high school.

The controversial proposal, which has faced vocal opposition, was initially scheduled for a vote earlier this summer. But the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8 to 3 to approve the higher standards on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.

High school students take the various MCAS tests, divided into subjects like math, science, and English language arts, in 10th grade. Since 2003, MCAS scores have been used as a graduation requirement. If students don’t pass the tests, they can retake them later in high school. 


Some new requirements will be implemented beginning with the Class of 2026, those students are preparing to begin 9th grade this fall. Standards will increase again later on down the line. 

Beginning with this year’s freshman class, students will be required to attain a scaled score of 486 on both the English and math MCAS tests. The math test already has a 486 requirement, but the English test only required a 472 score before now. A 470 will be required to pass the science and technology or engineering tests.

Monday’s decision also means that the minimum scores for the English and math tests will jump again for the Class of 2031. Those students will be the first to need a 500 on the two tests. The state classifies a 500 score as “meeting expectations.”

The proposal to raise the standards was initially put forth earlier this year, and officials decided to open a public comment period in April. A final vote was planned for June. The proposal was changed after board member Martin West proposed an amendment to further increase the standards in the future. 

During the public comment period, most responses opposed the changes, The Boston Globe reported. Those who responded raised concerns about potential negative impacts on high-needs students. They also said these changes could cause teachers to focus more on test prep instead of other types of instruction, while also increasing the pressure and stress felt by educators. 


The pandemic and its effects on students cannot be ignored in this discussion either, officials said. 

“We have seen an alarming increase in the social and emotional needs of our students,” Deb McCarthy, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told the Globe. “To consider the escalation of a testing regime during a time when our students have experienced so much loss and disconnection is not only harmful, it is purposeful negligence. Our students don’t need more testing time. They need more learning time.”

Crucial to these decisions is the work of John Papay, an associate professor of education at Brown University. In a presentation to the board this spring, he said his findings showed that MCAS scores are predictive of students’ long-term success and appear to reflect their academic skills, according to the Globe. Papay’s research also indicated that most students who scored around the current threshold did not appear to be ready to enter college or the workforce. 

Papay also found that lower scores are seen disproportionately among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the Globe, 30 percent of those who took the MCAS tests in 2018 were from low-income families, but 70 percent of students who failed the English test were from low-income families. 


In June, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to Riley urging education officials to reject the proposal. 

“Raising MCAS passing scores is likely to intensify, not reverse, negative consequences of 24 years of the high-stakes MCAS,” the letter read.  “The negative consequences would be the most onerous for groups of students who already suffer and were disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially English learners and students with disabilities as well as Black and Latinx students. It is worth noting that these are the very students the MCAS purports to help.” 

The letter also detailed how more than 52,000 students have reached the end of high school without passing the MCAS exams since certain test scores became a graduation requirement in 2003. These students have been labeled as “dropouts,” the lawmakers wrote, regardless of whether or not they fulfilled all their other graduation requirements. 

Massachusetts is one of only 11 states that still require standardized testing for graduation, according to the letter.

In June, students at Snowden International School near Copley Square organized walkouts and demonstrations to protest MCAS. The walkouts were planned to purposefully coincide with the timing of the tests. One of the organizers, Gigi Greene, said in an interview that she slowly became disillusioned with MCAS throughout her freshman year, and sensed a similar sentiment among her classmates. 

During one May walkout, Greene said, almost all of the freshman class participated. 

Preparations for MCAS hijacked her physics curriculum, she said. 


“We basically didn’t spend any time doing anything but MCAS prep over the past school year,” Greene said. “I was coming into it excited for physics, but I got there and realized ‘oh, this is just MCAS prep, we’re not learning anything outside of the equations we need for the test.’”

The MCAS test results for Spring 2021 were released last September, showing a downward trend

That year, math scores dropped 16 percentage points for students in grades three through eight, and 7 percentage points for those in 10th Grade. 

The MCAS tests were not administered in 2020 due to the pandemic. 


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