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Massachusetts Teachers Association to launch ballot campaign aimed at ending MCAS graduation requirement

The union’s board of directors voted unanimously Sunday to support the measure.

By James Vaznis Globe Staff, Updated August 6, 2023, 5:45 p.m.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is launching a campaign to end the MCAS graduation requirement. RYAN HUDDLE / ADOBESTOCK

The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s board of directors voted unanimously Sunday to support a ballot question that would drop the requirement that high school students pass MCAS exams in order to graduate — a move that will allow the union to spend money and other resources to win over voters.

The vote came four days after union members submitted a proposed ballot question to the state’s Attorney General’s Office for the 2024 election cycle. The question calls for eliminating the MCAS graduation requirement, established under the 1993 Education Reform Act, and instead allow students to receive diplomas by completing coursework that is consistent with the state’s academic standards and curriculum frameworks upon which the MCAS is based.

“This is an issue that educators have been passionate about for quite some time,” Deb McCarthy, the union’s vice president, said in an interview Sunday. “We know this harm needs to be eliminated, and it’s time to transition to assessment that is effective, performance based, and allows students to thrive.”

McCarthy was among the group of 10 union members and recent high school graduates who submitted the ballot question last week.

The union has argued for years that the MCAS graduation requirement rewards students who are good test takers, while unfairly punishing students who struggle with standardized tests, especially those with learning or physical disabilities or who are not fluent in English.

But supporters of the state requirement, including many with ties to the business community, say passing the MCAS ensures students graduate from public high schools ready for college or job-training programs.

“This proposal would jeopardize the futures of Massachusetts high school graduates, endanger the state’s standing as a national leader in education, and put the state’s economy at a further competitive disadvantage,” Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council and former chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, said in a statement. “Eliminating this statewide standard would do a disservice to all students, particularly students in underperforming districts and schools.”

Currently, high school students must pass Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in English, math, and science to graduate. More than 700 high school students a year typically don’t receive a diploma because they didn’t pass the tests, according to state data and instead received “certificates of attainment,” which are given to students who only satisfied local graduation requirements.

Many educators say a number of students who don’t pass MCAS ultimately drop out.

Although federal and Massachusetts laws require annual testing of public school students in certain grade levels, only Massachusetts law mandates high school students to pass the standardized tests in order to receive a diploma. Fewer than 10 states nationwide have such a requirement, according to FairTest, a national advocacy organization that opposes high school exit exams.

MTA leaders emphasized on Sunday that their ballot question would not end all MCAS testing.

“The MCAS will still be offered and provide whatever data that might be useful for educators in schools,” said Max Page, the union’s president.

The Attorney’s General Office is still vetting the legality of the MCAS question, which was among 42 ballot questions submitted by last Wednesday’s deadline. The MTA’s MCAS question is one of two the AG’s office has received to end the MCAS graduation requirement. The other was filed by Shelley E. Scruggs, whose son is a rising sophomore at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington.

Scruggs told the Globe last week she’s open to working with the MTA on a unified effort.

Ballot campaigns can be labor-intensive and expensive. An unsuccessful ballot campaign to expand charter schools in 2016 shattered state records at the time, with more than $40 million raised collectively by supporters and opponents. Most of the money was spent on television ads, campaign signs, and canvassing efforts.

Page said it’s unclear how much the union will spend on the MCAS campaign.

Prior to Sunday’s board of directors’ vote, the MTA registered a ballot initiative campaign for the MCAS question, the “Committee to Eliminate Barriers to Student Success for All,” with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance on July 10.

One of the first tests of public support will come this fall when ballot question organizers must gather the signatures of 74,574 certified voters by Nov. 22, one of the many steps in a lengthy process to get questions on the ballot, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. The MTA, with its 116,000 members, is expected to easily meet that bar.

Support for banishing the MCAS graduation requirement extends beyond the union.

A poll conducted in June for the MTA by Echo Cove Research found that 73 percent of 800 registered voters said they support replacing the MCAS graduation requirement with language similar to the ballot question.

The MTA said the ballot question is a last resort and it remains hopeful a separate bill on Beacon Hill that also would end the MCAS graduation requirement, will win approval there, ending the need for a ballot question.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.