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COVID-19: First Details Of MCAS Test Changes For 2021 Surface

COVID-19 Photo Credit: Pixabay/Alexandra_Koch

For many students, MCAS testing time will be shorter than usual due to COVID-19, said Massachusetts’ education commissioner, adding that for many students the pandemic likely led to a “learning loss.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 5, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley sent a memo to superintendents about what the MCAS testing process may be like during the pandemic.

With considerations for things like interrupted classroom schedules and distance learning, MCAS will still be taken this spring, but Riley said he will recommend to the state board of education that the test be modified in the competency-determination graduation requirement for the class of 2021. This would mean seniors could pass math or English class in lieu of taking the MCAS. Testing time for third through eighth graders may be reduced and no schools would be deemed “underperforming” in the upcoming year.

Here is a copy of the memo Riley sent to superintendents. 


Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Jeffrey C. Riley



To: Superintendents, Charter School Leaders, Collaborative Directors, and Leaders of

Approved Special Education Schools

From: Jeffrey C. Riley, Commissioner

Date: January 5, 2021

Subject: 2021 Assessment and Accountability Update

As students return to classes this week, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) remains committed to supporting school and district leaders who are managing the challenges of teaching and learning during the pandemic. The return from winter break marks the start of testing windows for federal and state-mandated student assessments. Administering these assessments, including the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and the ACCESS language proficiency test for English learners, can be logistically complex even in ordinary times. Administering these assessments this year is understandably a concern for local communities.

The sudden shift to remote learning last spring, and the continuation of hybrid/remote learning this school year has likely led to significant learning loss for students around the country. The extent of the learning loss in the Commonwealth is not yet known.

The Department continues to believe the MCAS test is a crucial diagnostic tool to promote student success and educational equity and we remain committed to administering the assessment this spring, while recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility.

A national study released last month by McKinsey & Co. estimates the shift to remote learning in spring 2020 set back all students’ academic progress by months. The study predicts learning losses will escalate as students remain in remote/hybrid models this academic year. The magnitude of this potential impact demands that we accurately and fairly assess the level of student learning this school year.

The MCAS tests will give Massachusetts educators and families critical insight into academic

losses that need to be addressed this spring and summer, and data on which students and districts have been most impacted by the disruptions in schooling. Administering the MCAS will make it possible to reliably assess students’ progress in relation to curriculum standards.

Besides serving this essential diagnostic purpose, the high school MCAS also affirms that

students are prepared for college and careers, in addition to providing access to college 2 scholarships.

The Department will take the following steps to modify testing this spring:

Modify the Competency Determination for the Class of 2021: The make-up MCAS

administration window for 12th graders scheduled to open on January 14th will be

postponed. I will recommend to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

(Board) that the competency determination (CD) requirement be modified in English

language arts and mathematics for students in the Class of 2021 who have not yet earned

their CD.1 The recommended modification would allow students to receive their CD by

passing an approved course and demonstrating competency in that subject in lieu of a

qualifying MCAS score. Seniors who still want to take the tests may take them later this

school year. Members of the class of 2021 will have opportunities to receive additional

academic support this spring and summer.

Shortened MCAS testing time for Grades 3-8: The Department will significantly

reduce testing time for students in grades 3-8 through a session sampling approach, in

which each student will take only a portion of each MCAS assessment in each subject.

This modified MCAS administration will preserve the validity and reliability of the test at

the school, district, and state levels. When combined with other data points, this approach

will provide meaningful diagnostic data at the individual student level.

Accountability relief: I will not name or recommend to the Board any new

underperforming or chronically underperforming districts or schools in the upcoming

school year. The Department will also consider any available flexibilities provided by the

U.S. Department of Education.

Extending ACCESS testing window: ACCESS testing for English language proficiency

is key to strengthening education programs for English learners. As previously

announced, the Department is extending the testing window for ACCESS, which

normally concludes in February, until May 20, 2021.

MCAS Biology test: The Department has provided school districts flexibility on

scheduling the high school biology MCAS test. Schools may offer the biology MCAS to

first-time 9th graders in June, instead of or in addition to offering it in February.

These testing flexibilities announced today are one part of the Department’s broader goals to

support districts and schools in the second half of the current school year, during the summer,

and into next school year. In the coming weeks, the Department will release additional

information, including preliminary plans and resources to support districts and schools in

addressing student learning loss.

See a copy of the letter, here.

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