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What is MCAS? Part of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (ERA) passed in the year 1993 was the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test. Portions of the test are given at several different grade levels to assess both learning by individual students and teaching by the schools.

It's hotly debated whether or not the MCAS is actually a good assessment of either individual students or teaching by the schools. The content of the tests --which of course changes every year-- tries to align with the curriculum of the state education frameworks but may not actually do so very well. Particularly questionable is the scoring of the test. MCAS is promoted as a "criterion-referenced" rather than a "norm-referenced" test, but raw scores are fitted into the 200-280 range in such a way that the lowest quartile of scores are classed as Warning/Failure no matter what.

Graduation Requirement

10th grade students are now required to pass the MCAS (raw score of 220 or above on a scale of 200-280) in order to receive a high school diploma. This part of the ERA became "real" rather than just a trial for the high school class of 2003 who first took the high school test as 10th graders in the spring of 2001.

It makes sense to me to make a high school diploma more "meaningful." It makes sense to me to measure the education provided by our schools. And it makes sense to me to allow setting of high academic standards in public schools. But I disagree with denying altogether any form of high school diploma to all students who do not score well on this single high-stakes test.

The multiple intelligences theory propounded by Howard Gardner has a lot of currency in our schools. (Note though that current research suggests that although students do have multiple intelligences, they do not have just one best way to absorb new information, and trying to identify a single learning style for each individual student is not helpful.) Different individuals have strengths in different areas. Some individuals have strengths that our society needs in "non-academic" areas. If our society denies these individuals a high school diploma altogether, it's discarding their skills.

Like it or not, a high school diploma has become the entry ticket into adult society in the USA. To altogether deny some individuals any high school diploma effectively excludes them from participating in our society.

Vocational (technical, trade) schools provide an alternative to academic schools for the "different" students who fit in them. But the MCAS requires that all schools in the commonwealth, including the vocational schools, produce students that score well on the same test. To survive, vocational schools have to teach the MCAS curriculum along with the vocational curriculum they specialize in. The unfortunate net result, since there's not enough time to teach two different curriculums, is that vocational schools are having to abandon their unique curriculums and become similar to regular academic schools. It doesn't make any sense to have schools that are different if they're required to teach to the same test. MCAS has gone overboard with the ERA's attempt to have students statewide all learn about the same thing, effectively gutting our vocational schools.

I've been surprised to learn that concern over use of the MCAS test as a high school graduation requirement is not limited to parents of high school students. I've also found a well of concern among Doyon elementary school parents whose children won't be affected by the MCAS high school graduation requirement for several more years.


MCAS is part of a nation wide trend toward the use of high stakes tests in public education. What is driving this trend? An under-reported news story Corporate-Sponsored Tests Aim to Standardize Our Kids attempts to answer this question, and fingers the business community as the most likely suspect.

A Trend Indicator

One way to view the MCAS is as an indicator of a trend whereby our society gradually deemphasizes quality public education for all, leaving the descendants of our public schools delivering a distinctly second rate education. A summary of this view is that high stakes tests are designed to sort kids and to eliminate the the public support for public education

MCAS may encourage parents to compete to get their children into the "right" school rather than cooperate to improve the schools their children are in.

The hypothetical detailed plan of action goes like this:

  • provide more alternatives to public schools (ex: charter schools, school vouchers)
  • measure and publicize widely (and even exaggerate) the failings of our public schools (private schools aren't subject to MCAS)
  • promote the fragmentation of our communities
  • sharpen and legitimize class separation in our society
  • gradually pick off a few public schools at a time by declaring them "under performing"
  • gradually privatize schools, as once they're in the private sector it will be easier to argue "keep costs low" without being constrained by "good education for all"

Although there's certainly no grand conspiracy, the possible trend and MCAS' possible role in it is worrisome. There are other indications that our society is indeed backing away from a commitment to a good education for all. And ruthless politically controlled assessment tools such as the MCAS can certainly play a big part in such a trend.

Other States

This approach to public education pioneered by the state of Massachusetts was a model for the federal No Child Left Behind program. Bringing this approach to all states has increased doubts about it, as evidenced for example by this analogy of the federal NCLB program to the practice of a dentist.

Standardized Testing In General

Here's a large infographic that discusses standardized testing in general, and presents results that might be summarized simply as it doesn't work. This infographic was produced as part of research by a group that was associated with Accredited Online Colleges. standardized testing infographic

Here are some places to learn more:

(Many web references are no longer available, most likely because most naysayers have now written off the debate about MCAS as a lost cause. The above are some that remain.)

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