Fanaticism is redoubling your effort after you’ve forgotten your aim.
Ars gratia artis, the motto of MGM Studios, is the Latin translation of “art for art’s sake.” The movies, MGM implied, were their own excuse for being.
The same could be said for MCAS this year.
With little or no rationale, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and Secretary of Education James Peyser want this year’s tenth and eleventh graders to take the MCAS test.
Yes, we may be in the middle of a pandemic. We may have lost three months of effective learning last year and lost two weeks this year. We may be at the beginning of a bold, year-long experiment with remote and hybrid learning.
Our most at-risk students and their families are suffering disproportionately from the effects of the disease. The achievement gap is almost certainly widening.
But no worries. MCAS will go on.
If there was a rationale for administering MCAS tests to our now long-suffering high school students, it was missing at the September meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
Riley, in his housekeeping remarks to the Board, stated that the Trump Administration had told states not to expect a waiver on high-stakes testing this year. Of course, they will no longer be in office in January. And other states, now in the throes of COVID, will likely want a hiatus in testing requirements.
Nonetheless, BESE Member Matt Hills said, “From a policy standpoint, I think it would be ‘horrible, terrible policy if we’re not going to have MCAS regardless of the situation.”
There is no way to predict educational conditions this spring, he means, but MCAS must go on.
We may not be in a lockdown like last spring, but MCAS makes no sense this year either. As its full name states, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is more than a test and its scores. It’s a system, and it is predicated on the assumption that students receive 990 hours of in-person education. With the exception of the tony suburb of Carlisle, every public school student in the Commonwealth is receiving some, if not all, of their instruction remotely. The Massachusetts public schools are currently in what is likely to be a year-long instructional experiment in learning. MCAS was simply not designed to assess it.
BESE’s work, however, apparently depends on MCAS.
“It’s just inconceivable to me that we could consider this year to be anything other than a failed year, as a board, if we go to a second year without our common assessment tool, MCAS,” Hills said.
If Hill was preoccupied with what a year without MCAS would mean to BESE, Secretary of Education James Peyser had public school students on his mind.
“In the name of equity and justice,” Peyser said, “we must do everything we can to provide students with meaningful instruction this year, and that includes MCAS.”
Perhaps Secretary Peyser needs a reminder of the fact that assessment is not instruction, and equity and justice are products of a fair and equitable educational system, not a standardized test and its scores. And the tragic flaw of our public education system is that the prerequisites are distributed unjustly and inequitably. MCAS not only fails to correct this flaw, but the entire assessment system also exacerbates it.
This year, most, if not all, underserved students are being taught remotely. Many lack the infrastructure and resources necessary to make the most of the situation. To make matters worse, their communities are suffering the worst health effects of the pandemic. Expecting them to take the test under these conditions is grotesquely unfair.
Contrary to Peyser’s words, MCAS would not only be unjust and inequitable, it would be meaningless. Even with psychometric calisthenics, scores 2021 can’t be meaningfully compared to those of previous years when a pandemic wasn’t raging across the world. In the last 12 months, sophomores and juniors lost more than one-third of their in-person learning time. The effect of the lockdown in terms of learning and adjustment to life was profound. Even now, education differs widely across the Commonwealth. If students fail, will the state allow them to graduate? Will the state blame students for learning losses caused by the pandemic?
MCAS scores are intended to imbue student learning with measurable value and provide policy-makers with data to guide educational policy. For better or worse, the pandemic would introduce a confounding variable that could not be isolated into the test results. For our students, education is at least partly remote this year, but MCAS isn’t equipped to tell us anything of use about their learning. There is no way to tell whether student performance is tied to an addressable weakness in instruction or curriculum or merely the educational effects of COVID-19.
The philosopher George Santayana once said, “fanaticism is redoubling your effort after you’ve forgotten your aim.” I don’t believe Secretary Peyser and BESE are fanatics. In fact, I believe they are well-meaning. But in doubling down on MCAS, they’ve forgotten the aim of school is education, not testing.
Mark L. Bail has been teaching English for 28 years at East Longmeadow High School. The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or viewpoints of the East Longmeadow Public Schools or Massachusetts Teachers Association.