My Turn: The truth about time spent on MCAS testing

Doug Selwyn



Published: 04-21-2024 10:31 AM


Many people have an image of students taking the MCAS exams: They receive a booklet, fill in bubbles for an hour or so and then go about their day. Those of us who have worked in schools know the real truth. The actual amount of time spent on testing is significant and impacts everyone in school — the children being tested and not tested, teachers and administrators. This is what MCAS testing really looks like.

MCAS began in 1998 with students in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades. Now students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 take the test — for two days of English/language arts testing and two days of math. Students in the fifth and eighth grades, and in high school, are also required to take two days of science tests. As of this year, students in eighth grade will take the first civics test, so they will be taking four different tests.

While each test session is untimed and supposed to take an average of 60 minutes, many students take twice as long. Some take the entire day on one session. Teachers are not allowed to answer students’ questions, and may not even remind students to check their answers.

Upon finishing, students must sit silently at their desks until a majority are done. Some schools allow them to read, others prohibit any activity. Because students finish at different times, teachers cannot continue with regular lessons and little learning happens that day.

Students with certain special needs have “accommodations.” This can mean taking the test alone or in a small group with a teacher proctoring the test. As a result, special educators and other staff often suspend regular teaching schedules to supervise students. Extra space must be found for small groups or single test-takers. Some staff give up offices or classrooms.

The test is given online, so many schools dedicate all their technology to the grade level that is testing that day. Classes doing projects or activities using school computers must suspend work during testing time because MCAS comes first. Technology staff must ensure that each device is working, charged and connected to the internet. Some schools conduct dry runs to make sure everything will go smoothly. No time is left for anything else.

And since the test is online-only, 8-year-olds must learn keyboarding skills so they can compose a literary essay on their computer or iPad.

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How do educators prepare for MCAS? Teachers teach test-taking skills, some beginning a few days before and others for months before the test. During MCAS month, teachers are trained on technology and protocols during their staff development time instead of on new curriculum materials or teaching strategies.

The day before the test, teachers remove all instructional charts or posters in their classrooms so kids “can’t cheat.” Administrators spend an inordinate amount of time creating testing groups, matching kids with proctors and finding space. Some schools must hire substitutes to monitor the halls and escort students to the bathroom.

What about the mental and emotional impact of these high-stakes, high-pressure tests?

According to a suburban district school psychologist, “Most people think about all of the time missing on active learning; I think about all of the anxiety kids feel about MCAS. Much of their brain’s space is thinking about these big scary tests, no matter what teachers or parents say. Kids are stressed. And they see their teachers moving things around in their schedule, and canceling other parts of their day to make MCAS prep a priority. So kids miss out on academics, but they are also consumed with the stress of having to take a test that feels overwhelming.”

Students not taking the test are also impacted, missing some of their regular classes. Students might not receive specialized services because staff who provide them are proctoring MCAS for other children. In some high schools, students not taking the MCAS have a half or even a full day off.

As children head to school during MCAS season, be curious and ask questions — of your children and their teachers. Find out how MCAS affects our children and their education throughout the year.

Doug Selywn lives in Greenfield. The information for this column was collected from interviews with teachers from around the state, including Beth Blanchard and Patrick Patterson in Ipswich; Kathy Greeley, Nella LaRosa-Waters, and Dori Kalthofer in Cambridge; and Rick Last in Amherst, Bob Miller in Brookline, Jim Murphy in Newton, Leonie Nakayama in Framingham, and Maureen O’Connor in Boston.