Council in the News
SEPT. 6, 2023…..Attorney General Andrea Campbell ruled Wednesday that two proposed ballot questions related to the role of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam are legally sound, keeping open the possibility that Bay State voters could decide next fall whether passing the standardized test should remain a requirement to graduate high school here.
The attorney general said both proposed questions — one filed by a Lexington mother and another offered by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) — met constitutional muster, but sponsors of both questions have decided to combine forces behind the teachers’ union-backed proposal.
The initiative would eliminate the requirement that a student pass the MCAS to graduate high school and instead would require that students complete coursework certified by their district “as demonstrating mastery of the competencies contained in the state academic standards in mathematics, science and technology, and English, as well as any additional areas determined by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education,” according to Campbell’s office’s summary of the proposal.
“Today’s decision by the state Attorney General’s office will allow us to make the case directly to voters at the ballot box as to why we must replace the harmful graduation requirement tied to the MCAS exams. This ballot initiative would make students eligible for a high school diploma if, among other requirements, they complete coursework demonstrating mastery of competencies in our state’s high academic standards,” MTA President Max Page and Vice President Deb McCarthy said.
The MTA said there are 42 states that “don’t use a single, high-stakes test to deny diplomas to high school students” and that high school students in Massachusetts would continue to take the MCAS tests even if a passing score is no longer a graduation requirement.
The MCAS exams were created under a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and high school students have been required to pass the tests to graduate since 2003.
To stay on track for the November 2024 ballot, supporters of the MCAS question and others certified Wednesday now have to collect 74,574 signatures and file them with local officials by Nov. 22, and then with the secretary of state’s office by Dec. 6. The MTA said it and its “community allies” will now “formally kickstart its 11-week sprint to gather more than 75,000 signatures.”
Ballot questions that submit enough certified signatures will head to the Legislature in January 2024. Lawmakers can approve them, propose a substitute or decline to take action. If lawmakers opt against action by May 1, 2024, campaigns will have to collect another 12,429 signatures and file them with local officials by June 19, 2024, then the secretary of state’s office by July 3, 2024.
Battle lines are already being drawn around the potential MCAS ballot question.
Last month, a group of nearly 20 education and business leaders sent Campbell’s office a memo saying the attorney general should not certify the petition filed by the MTA because it would ask voters two different policy questions and therefore “fails” the “relatedness requirement” in the state Constitution, an argument that has been cited to stop ballot initiatives in the past.
On Wednesday, the coalition said it still does not think the MTA-proposed ballot question meets the legal requirements for certification and that it “is prepared to fight this measure and is confident that with more information about the positive outcomes the requirement has produced for all students, voters will reject it.”
The group includes Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Edward Lambert Jr.; Massachusetts High Technology Council President Christopher Anderson; former lieutenant governor and current Worcester Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Tim Murray; former Education Secretary Jim Peyser; National Parents Union, Massachusetts President Keri Rodrigues; Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios; Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Jim Rooney; and Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst.
“MCAS has proven to be a reliable indicator of a student’s college and career readiness and eliminating it as a graduation requirement would amount to a huge step backward in the Commonwealth’s quest to ensure that all Massachusetts high school graduates acquire a basic mastery of the subject areas needed to be successful in their futures,” the group said. “Importantly, requiring students to meet a state standard to graduate high school ensures that ALL districts are setting a minimum academic standard. Eliminating the MCAS graduation requirement would leave us without a common, objective measure of achievement that all students, across all communities, are expected to meet. In its place would be more than 300 local graduation standards.”
Passage of either MCAS-related ballot question, the group said, “would reverse three decades of progress for kids in every zip code, jeopardize the futures of Massachusetts high school graduates, endanger the state’s standing as a national leader in education, and put the state economy at a further competitive disadvantage.”
The group had argued that a voter could hypothetically support eliminating a statewide mandate that students pass the MCAS to graduate but also think that local school boards should have the freedom to adopt a standardized-testing requirement in addition to, or instead of, the question’s reference to completing “coursework.” Those voters, the group said in its memo to Campbell’s office, would be put in an “impossible position.”
By virtue of its certification of the question, Campbell’s office disagreed with the group’s claims. But the office did include one line about potential challenges to its certification decisions at the very end of its press release Wednesday.
“In certain circumstances, voters who believe a certification decision is incorrect can ask the Supreme Judicial Court for review,” Campbell’s office said.