On MCAS, Union Invites Teachers To Play “Conscientious Objector” Role


Sam Drysdale| State House News

The state's largest teachers union is supporting educators who object to giving statewide standardized tests and informing parents on how they can opt their children out of the exams, ahead of a brewing battle over the controversial accountability system.

The union launched its campaign this year against the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) on March 7, according to an Massachusetts Teachers Association newsletter obtained by the News Service. The newsletter warns that schools around the state are about to be "transformed into testing warehouses" and identifies the campaign's goal as replacing "the punitive, high-stakes, rank-and-shame accountability system."

The MTA has long opposed the exams that were created in a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.

Supporters of the exams say they provide valuable data on school performance and achievement gaps, which can then be targeted with funding and interventions, while objectors say the MCAS causes unnecessary stress for students, takes away classroom time and school resources to teach "test taking" skills, and doesn't provide useful feedback for teachers.

The union newsletter provides resources for educators who become "conscientious objectors" to administering the tests. The email also provides resources for teachers to hold meetings in their school buildings with talking points on opting out of the standardized exams, to bring resolutions against the MCAS to their local school boards, and to reach out to lawmakers in support of bills removing the 10th grade MCAS graduation requirement.

In 2021, 52 educators in Cambridge and one in Hull informed their principals they do not intend to administer the MCAS, according to a document the MTA provided to their members on holding a meeting with fellow educators against the testing.

When asked if she has heard from educators who are planning to object to giving the test this year, MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy said she had.

The document the MTA sent their members to hold meetings on the tests also includes a sign-in sheet for educators, giving them the option to check off if they are planning to conscientiously object or "participate in helping parents to refuse the test for their students."

In 2021, "It Was Time"

Mary Tamer of the education organization Democrats for Education Reform said her reaction to seeing that the MTA was supplying resources for teachers to object to administering the tests was "not positive."

"The thought of teachers willfully refusing to do their job ... this is not something that is beneficial to students at all. They are refusing to participate in utilizing a tool that is not only essential to knowing where they're doing well and where there might be gaps, but also it's a tool for teachers to get a glimpse of how their teaching practice is resonating with students and adjust their lesson plans based on what they're seeing in their students," Tamer said.

McCarthy left her job teaching 5th grade last year to join the MTA full-time after she refused to proctor the exam and was put on administrative leave two years in a row.

She began asking school administrators in Hull to allow her to opt-out of giving the test in 2017, she said, but continued to administer the exam when warned of the consequences of refusing. The MCAS was not given in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reinstated the exams in 2021, McCarthy said "it was time" to become a conscientious objector.

"I began to see a lot of harm with the students around the exams, and the stories are heart wrenching," McCarthy said. "A student who had lost a parent whose mother was experiencing a fight with cancer had opted out but was still being pressured to take the test, we had a student cutting themself, a student on the spectrum who was trying to focus and thought it would be a good idea to take two of their meds overmedicated themself. Even for kids who are really good test takers, there's a lot of anxiety."

In 2021 and 2022, McCarthy refused to give the test and was put on three-day administrative leave both years.

Since elementary students do not receive grades for the tests, Tamer said children only become "alarmed or distressed" about these tests "if those messages are delivered to them."

"I think we need to be very clear with children that this test is not grading them, it's grading their school," she said. "I think whatever stress might be raised in a classroom is coming from the adult in that classroom, it's not coming from the students."

In 10th grade, students are required to pass the exam to get their high school diploma.

The recommendation sheet the MTA is distributing to educators who conscientiously object says the union will provide an attorney if a teacher is fired or suspended for refusing to proctor the MCAS.

"Tool To Identify Gaps"

Testing season is coming up. English Language Arts exams will be given from March 27 through April 28, and math and science tests will be administered from late April through late May.

Consequences for a teacher not complying with a principal's direct order to administer the test could include being fired, facing unpaid suspension, or getting a mark on his or her record that could be cited for future discipline.

"Whether DESE would view conscientious objection to participation in MCAS as reason for action on an educator's license is unpredictable, although it is clear that the current administration of DESE strongly supports MCAS as a matter of educational policy," the recommendation document says.

DESE representatives were not available to speak to the News Service for this story.

The department uses the MCAS to collect data on schools' performance, achievement gaps between districts and student groups, to implement targeted interventions for districts scoring below state standards, and K-12 Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said last year that the scores are an important tool to "predict later outcomes in education and earning."

The state Board of Education voted this summer to raise the graduation requirement minimum score for the 2022-2023 freshman class and at least the four classes that follow.

Results from the spring 2022 MCAS were mixed: math and science scores improved statewide from 2021 results, but English language arts scores declined. After two years of remote schooling, learning loss can be seen in students' scores, DESE said, and shows "continued need for improvement."

"MCAS is a tool to identify gaps, so if this tool is not used, then how do we know what's actually happening with our students during one of the most tumultuous and challenging times in their K-12 years," Tamer said. "This is no time for us to say that we don't need to see disaggregated student data when we are in a place where literally only 50 percent of our third graders are reading proficiently, and in cities like Boston, it's more than 30 percent of third graders... how could anyone think that not having access to this kind of data is helpful to students?"

McCarthy argued that the MCAS does not help teachers assess their students' weaknesses and intervene, as the test results are not shared with districts until fall of the following school year.

"I was never able to use the data from test results to readjust my curriculum to meet student needs, because by the time I got the results, those students were in sixth grade," she said, comparing the MCAS to a different testing program her district used which showed results immediately.

Helping Parents Opt Out

During her time as a teacher, McCarthy worked with parents to help them get their children out of taking the test, she said.

"I began working with parents around [2017] because many districts will tell parents when they write a note that they don't want their child to take the test, they would say 'There is no opt-out. You have to take it,' So I started working with parents, educating them," McCarthy said.

Among the materials the MTA distributed on March 7 was a fact-sheet to help parents opt their children out of the test.

"Opting out is an effective way to protest the overuse and misuse of standardized tests, which forces schools to focus on the demands of the tests instead of the needs of students. Test obsession eats up classroom time, narrows curriculum, destroys children's love of learning, and fuels the school-to-prison pipeline," the document says.

In grades 3 through 8, students who do not take the MCAS are not penalized, but their nonparticipation counts against the school's participation rate, which could ultimately impact its "accountability designation," according to DESE. The accountability system "helps the state to direct resources and assistance" and "identify districts and schools that require assistance or intervention in addition to those that are demonstrating success," says the department's website.

In 10th grade, the consequences of not taking the test are much more dire. Without passing the MCAS students cannot receive a diploma, and do not qualify for state college scholarship programs such as the John and Abigail Adams scholarship.

McCarthy said the MTA is not recommending that any 10th graders not sit for the test, as the consequences of not passing the exam could mean losing their chance at a high school diploma. The union is, however, supporting legislation to remove the graduation requirement from the high school exam.

The MTA is encouraging teachers to reach out to lawmakers in support of the "Thrive Act" (S 246 / H 495), which would replace the MCAS graduation requirement with a requirement for districts to independently certify that a student has completed coursework that shows they meet state standards. It would also eliminate the policy that allows the state to take control of an underperforming district and establish a commission to create a new assessment system based on the "whole-child."

Tamer said she supports the 10th grade graduation requirement as a way of ensuring high standards for Massachusetts students.

"It's important for us to know what a high school diploma indicates in the state of Massachusetts," she said. "And for us to go back on the high standards we've set for students is not a step in the right direction."

Healey Open To New Ideas

In a new poll commissioned by the MTA and conducted by Echo Cove Research, 74 percent of respondents said they supported removing the graduation requirement from the 10th grade MCAS. It also showed 83 percent favored establishing a state commission to study and make recommendations for a "better assessment system."

The poll was conducted via an online survey in February, surveying 750 voters over 21 years old on the MTA's legislative agenda this year, which also includes funding for public higher education and the legalization of the right to strike for most public employees.

Senate President Karen Spilka said in Januarythat she is open to alternatives to high-stakes MCAS testing for some students. And the landscape might be shifting even more now that there's a governor in the corner office who is more amenable to changes in the test.

Gov. Maura Healey was endorsed by the MTA in her campaign, and her education platform includes support for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, a partnership of eight public school districts exploring new accountability systems that aren't reliant on just the MCAS.

"Maura supports the efforts of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment and will work with stakeholders to determine what reforms to our assessment and accountability system would best support the goals of advancing excellence and equity, especially for students with disabilities, English learners, and those from marginalized communities," says Healey's campaign website.

McCarthy said on Tuesday that she has had conversations with the administration and believes they are willing to remove the graduation requirement and change the MCAS exam, "this session." Healey has "an understanding" of the MTA's concerns and demands about the test, she said.

"We've had conversations with the new secretary of education, I've had conversations with the commissioner of education, the Massachusetts Association of Superintendents, and Mass Association of School Committees, and I'll say mine is not a voice that is out there in a silo," she said. "I feel like this time around there's enough of a coalition, enough of an understanding of the damage over time, and enough of the power brokers engaged in the movement, that I do believe that we're going to see success this time."

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