MCAS Ballot Initiative Part 2: A Closer Look at the Graduation Requirement

This election season, Massachusetts voters may face a ballot question on whether or not to end the MCAS graduation requirement. In the lead up to November, we’ll be releasing a series of blog posts with all the information you’ll need to help you decide how to cast your vote. We kicked off our series in February with an overview of the MCAS and a look at its history. This month we’re taking a closer look at the implications of the ballot initiative, the graduation requirement itself, and what proponents and opponents of the ballot initiative have to say.

The debate around MCAS has been swirling for decades, especially since passing the exam became a graduation requirement in 2003. In November, Massachusetts voters may be asked to decide whether or not to keep the graduation requirement. Despite the outcome of this proposed ballot initiative, students across the Commonwealth will continue to take the MCAS exam each year in federally mandated grades and subjects. The MCAS exam itself is not the focus of the proposed ballot question. Instead, voters would be weighing in on whether or not MCAS scores play a role in earning a diploma.

So what does it take to graduate with a high school diploma in Massachusetts right now? Every student must meet local requirements, like completing a certain number of credits in specific subject areas. This can vary widely by district. Students must also meet state requirements to earn a “Competency Determination,” which generally means earning a qualifying score on the high school MCAS tests in English Language Arts, Math, and Science/Technology/Engineering. 

For students who don’t earn a qualifying score on their first time taking the MCAS, there are several other paths to a diploma. This process is a bit complicated, but it’s worth understanding when weighing whether or not there should be an MCAS graduation requirement. Qualifying scores can vary per year and per test, and are informed by committees representing Massachusetts educators, but determined by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Students who score below the qualifying score are placed on an Educational Proficiency Plan (EPP). This requires additional courses, a description of the students’ strengths and weaknesses, and locally designed and approved assessments that track how the student is progressing. Students who complete these steps can graduate by meeting a lower minimum score than the overall qualifying score and are able to retake the exam up to four times. Students who don’t pass after additional attempts may be able to take part in an appeal process which, if granted, allows for alternative ways to meet state graduation requirements like a transcript or portfolio review. Otherwise, students who do not pass the test but complete all other graduation requirements receive a Certificate of Attainment instead of a high school diploma. 

More than ten percent of students do not pass the MCAS on their first try and nearly four percent don’t pass after multiple attempts or an appeals process. However, nearly three percent of students don’t pass the MCAS and do not meet local graduation requirements. Less than one percent of students—approximately 700 students each year—receive a Certificate of Attainment, instead of a high school diploma, because of MCAS alone. In 2019, 281 of those 702 students were English Language Learners and 402 were students with disabilities. 


The “Vote Yes” Side: Remove the MCAS Graduation Requirement

Among the most vocal supporters of the proposed ballot initiative are the state’s largest teachers’ unions: the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Massachusetts. They argue the MCAS should not be used as a graduation requirement because standardized tests are not an accurate measure of learning. Instead, they support locally developed and state-approved methods of certifying students’ mastery of academic coursework necessary for a high school diploma. Proponents say that the high stakes nature of the graduation requirement means students and teachers are spending valuable time preparing for the test rather than on the knowledge and skills necessary for success after high school. They point to national studies that suggest standardized testing is much more indicative of a students’ family and community wealth than it is of students’ knowledge and that the presence of an “exit exam” does not increase academic achievement

Massachusetts isn’t alone in this debate. The number of states requiring exit exams has decreased significantly over the last decade. In 2014, 24 states required students to pass a standardized test to graduate, that number is now down to eight. One driver of this national shift has been concerns around equity. Some national studies have linked exit exams to higher drop-out rates for students of color. In Massachusetts, a disproportionate number of students who identify as BIPOC, English language learners, low-income, as well as those with disabilities are denied diplomas due to MCAS, despite having fulfilled all local graduation requirements.

Proponents also point out that while 700 Massachusetts students each year are unable to graduate based solely on MCAS scores, this figure does not account for the number of students who may drop out after not receiving a qualifying score on their first MCAS attempt. Some research in Massachusetts suggests, for example, that urban, low-income students who barely fail the Math MCAS are more likely to drop out in the year following the test than those who barely passed. And proponents of the ballot initiative remind us of the dire consequences of leaving high school without a diploma. Research shows that it has a lifelong impact on an individual’s employment, earnings, health, likelihood of incarceration, as well as significant ramifications on the economy as a whole.


The “Vote No” Side: Keep the MCAS Graduation Requirement

Opponents of the proposed ballot initiative—which include the Healey-Driscoll administration and organizations like the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)—say eliminating the graduation requirement is a step in the wrong direction. With each school district having their own local graduation requirements, which can vary widely, opponents believe aligning standards across the state would be impossible. As Massachusetts Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler put it, removing the graduation requirement  would “deliver us to a place of no standard—essentially, 351 different standards for high school graduation.” 

Some say the exam, and the graduation requirement itself, played a significant role in launching Massachusetts to the top of national education rankings. The MCAS was at the heart of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act and opponents of the ballot initiative say this strategy of high standards led to positive results at a national level. From 2005 to 2011, Massachusetts students scored highest in the nation on all four major categories (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math) of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. Since then, scores have remained consistently high, only falling out of the top spot on a few occasions. Opponents say high expectations lead to high achievement and fear that without the MCAS graduation requirement, the quality of education in the Commonwealth will deteriorate and students will graduate unprepared for college. They point to research that suggests high school MCAS scores predict long-term success and appear to reflect students’ academic skills, not simply socio-economic status or school characteristics.

Opponents of the ballot initiative also view the existence of the graduation requirement as an equity issue. They say the MCAS exam has exposed achievement gaps that led to increased funding for under-resourced districts and, ultimately, more equitable learning opportunities for students. They argue that the graduation requirement itself leads to more support for students who need it. Students who don’t pass the MCAS on the first try are provided targeted support—something opponents of the ballot initiative say helps prepare students for more than just the test, but for postsecondary education as well. 

Critics of the ballot initiative argue that lowering standards is not the way to increase graduation rates, instead, they say, the focus should be on effective strategies to improve learning and achievement outcomes.


A Third Path Forward: A Compromise 

While the proposed ballot question would require you to vote for or against the graduation requirement, it’s important to note that there are other points of view in this debate. There seems to be willingness on both sides to reach a compromise. Proponents and opponents of the ballot initiative believe there’s room for improvement on our graduation requirements and on the MCAS itself. This could look like replacing the exam with one that is more performance based or making the “MassCore” curriculum standard across all districts to ensure students' learning is aligned without the pressure of an exit exam. 


Regardless of the outcome in November, it will be crucial to discuss what the test itself looks like and how it can evolve to better serve students and schools in the future. Stay tuned as we continue our series leading up to the vote this November.