Reimagining the MCAS: The Need for an Accountability System that Supports Deeper Learning

Asked what he’ll remember most about 8th grade, a Boston student named Christian* described the process of developing a podcast to tell his mother’s immigration story. The class project was intended to develop students’ writing and speaking skills. For Christian, interviews with family members unearthed stories from his mother’s childhood that he had never known. Inspired by his experience, Christian left middle school with a goal of becoming a journalist one day.

Students across Massachusetts report that authentic learning experiences like the podcast project happen far too infrequently. They spend much of their class time learning content from whiteboards and textbooks that is disconnected from their lived experiences and future aspirations. Though many teachers are actively trying to shift towards deeper learning, they report that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is a barrier that stands in their way. Our latest policy brief, Reimagining the MCAS: The Need for an Accountability System that Supports Deeper Learning, argues that it is time to reimagine the MCAS into an assessment that supports deeper learning. 

The MCAS consists primarily of multiple choice questions, with a handful of essays, short answer, and constructed response items. Though the MCAS was revised in 2017 to emphasize critical thinking and application of knowledge, the impact of these changes is limited by the format of the exam. In its current form, the MCAS is unequipped to measure key skills that students will need in their future career and educational pursuits. For example, it cannot measure students’ ability to find and assess sources to inform research projects or communicate with peers to share mathematical reasoning.

The unintended consequences of the MCAS are evident in Massachusetts classrooms every day. In schools that perform well on the exam, teachers describe a fear that innovating with their instruction will lead to a decline in test scores. In schools concerned about facing punitive accountability measures because of low test scores, educators are often encouraged to devote class time to test-taking strategies, MCAS practice problems, and instruction that mirrors the format of the exam. 

While problematic, the profound impact of the MCAS on classroom practice points to a silver lining for the future: state assessments can be a powerful lever for instructional change. 

Over the nearly 25 years since MCAS tests were first administered, the test and our state’s accountability system have brought resources to underfunded schools, highlighted inequities in our education system, and pushed Massachusetts to first in the nation in academics. The MCAS was designed to assess student performance against a coherent and rigorous set of instructional standards, which were introduced in response to the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. At the time, a unified set of standards for all districts, and an MCAS assessment to measure performance against these standards, represented an enormous step towards equity for Massachusetts schools. This major policy change set a clear expectation that regardless of race, income, or zipcode, students should have the same access to rigorous learning opportunities. 

The promise of equity that was central to the standards and accountability movement of the 1990s and early 2000s remains unfulfilled. After years of rapid growth, educational gains for Massachusetts students have stagnated and stubborn opportunity gaps persist between white students and students of color. In aggregate, MCAS scores can largely be explained by community wealth and parental education levels. Despite this fact, MCAS scores continue to be used to rank and evaluate schools. By stigmatizing schools that perform poorly, this practice does more to perpetuate than address inequity.

In the years since the MCAS was first administered, our knowledge of how students learn, retain, and apply information has grown tremendously. For example, it is now widely known that all learning takes place in the context of culture. Many students experience a disconnect between their home cultural norms and what they experience in school. This cultural mismatch puts many students of color at a disadvantage. As a result of this knowledge, schools are increasingly seeking opportunities to adjust instructional practices, curriculum, and assessments to better serve students. 

At the same time, the competencies that students need for future careers have shifted drastically. As noted by Commissioner Jeff Riley in Our Way Forward, “The goal of education is no longer simply to possess knowledge; instead, leveraging ever-smarter technology, students must learn to access knowledge, mine it for relevance, and apply it in new ways.”  In response to these shifts, educational policies and practices that worked in the past need to be updated. The MCAS, which once encouraged dramatic improvement, now serves as a barrier to change.

Massachusetts’ K-12 education system is at a critical juncture and it is time to reimagine our state assessments. Technological advances are making innovative forms of assessment more scalable than ever before. Performance-based assessments, which use authentic scenarios to assess students’ ability to apply the content they have learned, have long been considered an effective means of measuring deeper learning. In the past, performance assessments have required human scoring, but computer-scored performance tasks have become more prevalent in recent years. At the same time, flexibility under the federal Every Study Succeeds Act has encouraged states to innovate with their assessments. A few states have begun experimenting with interim assessments for accountability purposes, offering a handful of short exams throughout the school year rather than one longer end-of-year assessment. This format eliminates the need for schools to administer separate formal assessments, which can be costly and time consuming, to get the data they need to adjust instruction.

In order to support school improvement, the MCAS must align with modern, research-based instructional practice. Our policy brief argues that the MCAS is an underutilized lever for instructional change. By leveraging the power of new technology, the Commonwealth has the opportunity to redesign the MCAS into a culturally responsive assessment that supports deeper learning and gives teachers the real-time data they need. 

Such changes need to be implemented carefully with significant input from students, families, and educators who are most affected by these changes. Though the challenges to implementing a new assessment are significant, they are worth pursuing. A shift in assessment will make a difference for students like Christian, who are asking educators to deliver instruction in a way that connects to their lived experiences and goals for the future.