Most people in Massachusetts recognize MCAS as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which public schools use to test students in a variety of subjects from grade 3 into high school. In these times, though, students also desperately need another kind of MCAS from their educators– More Compassion, Assurance, and Support.
Compassion: Students are dealing with increased anxieties. Because of the pandemic, all students have had to adjust in different ways to remote learning, mask wearing and social distancing. Many have witnessed their family members’ isolation, illness, even death. Increasing numbers of students have worries about the economy, wondering whether their families will have enough money for basics such as housing, food, and utilities. Far too many students have fears about racial injustices, having viewed the suffocation of George Floyd and the riot at the Capitol as well as listening to other disturbing realities.
Assurance: All students need to hear how leaders are working to confront the pandemic, poverty, and racial injustices. They also need to hear that they are not going to fail or be kept back in school if they make a reasonable effort during these challenging times. Students who experience greater hardships or anxieties need greater attention. Although this has been complicated by hybrid and remote learning, connecting regularly with students is critical. Teachers and support staff need to reach out even more to help their students believe that they can succeed.
Support: Assessments are necessary to determine student needs’ and instructional strategies. Given these extraordinary times, though, are all the many MCAS tests still warranted? Certainly, the high stakes accountability that can label and punish students and schools should be waived. It would be particularly onerous for students who have had little or no in-person instruction to return to their schools in the spring just to be bombarded by too many tests.
Education leaders should plan for a more limited number of assessments to diagnose students’ needs. Then they should advocate and mobilize to provide significant support continuing throughout the summer. Tutoring should be offered to students who are struggling with basic skills.
Counseling should be provided to students dealing with mental health issues. Supplementary services should be scheduled for students with disabilities and English language learners who have missed out on them. In addition, all students should have greater access to age-appropriate enrichment materials, particularly in science and social studies, which are currently often neglected. State and district leaders should be responsible for identifying and preparing instructional videos and lessons around common curriculum. These can be posted and available not only to schools but also to homes and community centers across the Commonwealth using technologies that have been developed over this past year.
Students need and deserve education leaders who will prioritize a different MCAS – more compassion, assurance, and support.
Bill Henderson is a former teacher and principal who worked in the Boston Public Schools for 36 years. The Henderson School in Dorchester is named in his honor.