On December 15, Representative Jim Hawkins and I sent the following letter to the Joint Committee on Education Chairs Lewis and Peisch regarding the urgent need to waive the MCAS graduation requirement. The letter follows:
Chairs Lewis and Peisch,
Thank you for your service to the Commonwealth during these continually pressing times.
We write with urgency around the MCAS exam, scheduled to be administered in January to 4,896 seniors who have not yet passed the ELA or Math exam and whose on-time graduation hangs in the balance as a result.
We are in receipt of numbers of wrenching stories from these students and/or their families and teachers. We’ve heard about grandmothers who are guardians, families who are homeless, students struggling with anxiety on top of learning disabilities.
We are sharing just five stories with you now with the hope that you’ll move urgently on legislation to strike the provision in General Laws Chapter 69, section 1D(i) that conditions student graduation with a high school diploma on a “satisfaction of the requirements of the competency determination.”
We understand that, again this year due to COVID-19 complexities, there will not be a high-stakes requirement for science. We ask you to take the steps necessary to waive the graduation requirement for all other exams for this academic year, allowing requisite coursework to stand as the requirement for graduation.
As you can imagine, we’ve attempted to strike identifying details from these accounts in the name of confidentiality.
A family in [a western Massachusetts community] contains an adult who lives with multiple comorbidities. This family has made tremendous sacrifices throughout the pandemic to reduce all possible exposures. Faced now with the possibility of having to go into school to take this “last chance” test, the student is terrified by the choice of having to endanger her beloved family member or risk not being able to take hoped-for future steps that are open to the student only if they pass one final MCAS exam.
A student in Chicopee who has long struggled with mental health issues has been struggling profoundly during the COVID-19 pandemic amid heightened health and economic stressors. Upon hearing the news that the student would have to return to their high school to take one remaining MCAS exam, the student told a teacher, “I’m so depressed. I can’t take this on top of everything else. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself again with all this stress.”
A grandparent from Attleboro has a child who is on the autism spectrum. The student has worked “harder than” the parent “could ever imagine” to “make it through” and has painstakingly planned and prepared for a career in cosmetology. The grandparent wrote, “[My grandchild’s] level of unpreparedness for a timed, rigidly structured, possibly life altering test could not be any lower. Already Autistic and emotionally challenged, these last ten(10) months under constant COVID-19 restrictions have wreaked havoc on him. Add to that the fact that prolonged school cancellations, sporadic remote and hybrid learning and oftentimes erratic computer glitches have made schooling, even for the best of high school students, an immense challenge. The pressure of top level performance not only creates immense angst in [my grandchild], it also heightens and makes probable negative displays of physical and anti-social characteristics whose manifestations no one wants to see or experience. To combat the same, medications can be administered, yes, but those same medications will strongly and actively mitigate [my grandchild’s] ability to test with a clear thinking head.”
A parent from Westford wrote, “Last winter [my child] was making good progress in her math class, but when the school shut down the entirety of the curriculum was reduced to YouTube videos. [My child] can not learn this way … Unfortunately, this fall is not much better. [My child] is lucky to have math class twice a week tops. School is on a hybrid schedule, and the teacher has been consistently out due to Coronavirus exposure. This has resulted in no class. I don’t think [my child is] going to pass the test in time to graduate. This is very unfair. The MCAS is a metric that is a reflection of the quality of education in the best of times. Having the MCAS in 2020 is not a metric but a punishment to the students. The kids should not be held liable for the shortcomings of the education system during the pandemic.”
An ESL teacher in Boston, wrote, “Several of my students are among the group of learners required to take the MCAS in January. They are all students who have immigrated to the U.S. shortly before the pandemic. These students are classified as ELD 1 and 2, meaning that they are at the entering and emerging stages of learning the English language and are still early in the process of developing their reading and writing proficiency in English. While these students receive English language instruction and sheltered content instruction with language support, they have never been enrolled in a grade level ELA course. Many of these learners have been disproportionately affected by the switch to remote learning, as many of these learners are still building their technology literacy, and several have reported housing instability (and therefore inconsistent access to the internet). My group of students expected to take the MCAS also includes:
- A student who is working 1PM-1AM daily and caring for younger siblings during the school day, which has posed serious challenges to his attendance and ability to engage in learning
- A student who entered [school] in March and has spent almost the entirety of his educational experience in the U.S. in this online setting.
- Students who for health reasons have expressed serious reservations about going to the school for any in-person testing
Many of these students have expressed anxiety about the test, knowing that it is a graduation requirement and that they are likely to age out of the system soon, but not feeling ready to take such an intense exam in English. To help them feel more prepared and to quell their anxiety, I’ll have to dedicate class time to test taking strategies and to material from the ELA MCAS that is completely out of joint with where they are in their language learning process.
The fact is, the MCAS requirement has always been unfair to English learners. Research says that it takes an average of 7 years to learn a new language, and yet the assumption is that we can somehow fasttrack this process with enough grit and determination. The pandemic has exacerbated an existing disparity.”
Stories are pouring in much like these five along with calls to action from allied school committees, associations, councils, and unions.
Finally, we wanted to underscore that during the FY21 budget process, budget amendments to cancel MCAS received majority support in both branches of the Legislature. We can only imagine that many of our colleagues will stand with you if you act.
Thank you for your consideration of this heartfelt and urgent request.
Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester
Secretary James Peyser
Commissioner James Riley