Test Opposition Heats up in Massachusetts

K-12 Testing

In a testing season marked by dramatic walk-outs, rallies, vigils, and teach-ins, more than 300 students boycotted the high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test in April and May. Hundreds of students and parents attended an after-school rally on the Boston Common near the State House on May 15 to express their opposition to the paper-and-pencil, 18-hour test. The MCAS is given to students in 4th, 8th, and 10th grades in English language arts, math, science, and social studies. Next year's 10th graders will have to pass the English and math portions of the test in order to graduate from high school.


The rally featured speeches by a diverse array of students, elected officials, teachers, and parents, punctuated by rap music, skits, puppet shows and spirited chants. It drew together urban and suburban families in a strong show of unity. A contingent of students marched to the State House to present the Governor¹s office with petitions bearing almost 7,000 signatures. The rally was organized by the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS (SCAM) and statewide Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education or CARE, in which FairTest actively participates.


The boycott and rallies represent just the tip of the iceberg of growing opposition to the test.


Some two dozen students at Springfield High School of Science and Technology walked out of the test; many were suspended. A far larger walk-out, possibly by hundreds of students, apparently had been planned but was thwarted when administrators got wind of it. They moved students out of their normal testing rooms and into the cafeteria and library, where students were forced to take the science test under extremely cramped and noisy conditions.


Teachers also began to resist. Jim Bougas of Harwich was suspended for refusing to administer the MCAS, while teachers in some other districts were not penalized for their similar actions.


Widespread Organizing
Since the spring of 1999, parents’ groups have sprung up in many Greater Boston communities, including Cambridge, Boston, Arlington, Brookline, Newton, Wayland, and in cities and towns throughout Western Massachusetts where forums have consistently drawn 150-200 people. The groups are all part of CARE .


Many students remained firm in their decision to boycott in the face of threats and reprisals from state and local authorities. The business-funded, pro-MCAS group MassInsight issued a memo to local school districts recommending that students’ grades be docked if they refused to take the test. This tactic was used by the headmaster of Brookline High School; he told more than 20 students who boycotted the long composition test that their zeroes would be factored into English grades. Parent and student protests forced him to back down and concede that students could “buy back” their zeroes with a 5-page research paper on civil disobedience.


Twenty-five students in Arlington also bravely persisted with their boycott even when the School Committee imposed three-day suspensions. In a move which reflected the contradictory feelings of local school boards under enormous pressure from the state to punish dissenters, the Arlington School Committee issued a strong public letter to the state Board of Education expressing objections to the MCAS test. In Holyoke, 15 students were suspended for refusing to take the test.


More than 150 students at the high school and elementary schools in Cambridge boycotted the test without reprisals. MassParents, the Cambridge CARE chapter, had approached the school committee last December and secured promises that no action would be taken against boycotters or teachers and administrators who spoke out against the test. These important protections allowed for a broad boycott movement in Cambridge. In Amherst, 20% of the school’s sophomores boycotted, and town school committee voted to ask the state to cease using MCAS as a graduation requirement. Many students appear to be boycotting quietly, either by being absent (as were 10% of Boston students in 1999) or by not answering the questions.


During the test-taking time, boycotters engaged in a range of alternative academic projects: they wrote essays explaining why they were not taking the test, participated in workshops about authentic and fair assessment systems, developed portfolios, and performed community service.