High Standards, Not High Stakes

In November, Massachusetts voters will decide on a ballot question to replace the standardized MCAS tests as a high school graduation requirement, and instead require students to demonstrate that they have mastered the state’s education standards, skills and competencies through their schoolwork and teacher evaluations.

It's Official!

The ballot question to replace the MCAS graduation requirement is going to the ballot
signature collecting
MTA member organizers collected signatures at community events across the state during the fall and spring. This photo was taken May at the Step Up for Colleen 5K in Andover.

Public education advocates have notched a key milestone in their campaign to replace the high school graduation requirement tied to the MCAS exam. The Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s office certified the additional signatures needed to place the initiative on the Nov. 5 statewide ballot.

The ballot question is an effort led by the MTA, joined by other public education allies including parents, students and educators.

“We are one step closer to replacing the punitive graduation requirement with a renewed focus on our best-in-the-nation state standards and academic frameworks,” MTA President Max Page said. “This certification reflects the power of collective action; union educators, parents and community allies united to gather 170,000 signatures – more than any other ballot initiative this cycle and far exceeding the requirements to get on the ballot.”

The initiative aims to shift the focus from a standardized test and replace it with local certification that a student has completed coursework that meets all of the state’s academic standards.

“It’s time to win this issue at the ballot this November and demonstrate that it is the educators, parents and community members who know what is best for our students,” MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy said. “Our students believe they are more than a score, their parents want to experience all that their child is capable of beyond a test score, and educators want to educate the whole child. In the coming weeks, MTA educators will intensify their efforts, engaging directly with voters to ensure a victory in November.”

If passed, the ballot initiative would replace the MCAS graduation requirement with fairer, more authentic measures in which districts certify that graduating students have satisfactorily completed coursework that demonstrates mastery of the skills, competencies and knowledge contained in the state academic standards and curriculum frameworks.

An Outlier in High-Stakes Testing

U.S. map
Massachusetts is one of the few states in the country to require a high school graduation test

Massachusetts likes to brag that it has an exceptional national reputation for public education, but in one aspect, it’s a straggling outlier. The state requires a high school graduation test for a diploma, which is becoming a rarity in the United States.

Massachusetts, which administers the MCAS-based graduation test in the 10th grade, is joined by Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, New York (which is moving toward a fairer and more equitable system in place of a graduation requirement), Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.

The ballot question to replace the MCAS graduation requirement will not affect the continued use of the MCAS as a diagnostic tool.

Reaching the 2024 Ballot

How Do We Get There?
Getting on the ballot

All ballot initiatives follow a specific process in Massachusetts. The MTA has already cleared several steps in getting a ballot question before voters to end the high school graduation requirement of the MCAS, but we have several more to go.

What does the initiative petition say?

The proposed law would eliminate the requirement that a student pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests (or other statewide or district-wide assessments) in mathematics, science and technology, and English in order to receive a high school diploma. Instead, in order for a student to receive a high school diploma, the proposed law would require the student to complete coursework certified by the student’s 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.

Read more in MTA Today

signature collecting

Educators have long called for an end to the punishing high-stakes testing regime

High-stakes testing and the associated accountability measures have undermined our public education system for far too long.

Massachusetts is only one of eight states in the country that ties its standardized test to graduation. The change in attitudes about exit exams is likely related to research indicating that exit exams don't increase academic achievement.

The current testing system reduces time to teach, narrows the curriculum, adds stress and reduces creativity and misuses education dollars. The punitive aspects of the MCAS regime are especially detrimental to students with Individualized Education Plans, students learning English as a second language, students of color and and students from groups that have been historically marginalized from an equitable and supportive education.

Legislative Priorities announcement on Dec. 8 2022

MCAS incentivize schools to 'teach to the test, narrow the curriculum'

When MTA member Jack Schneider spoke on the impact of the MCAS exams at a State House press conference in December 2022, he teared up at the emotional toll the standardized test has had on his own child.

The high-stakes nature of the test, said Schneider, a professor of education at UMass Lowell who studies the impact of MCAS and school rankings, "incentivizes schools to game the system, to do things like teach to the test and narrow the curriculum."

The high-stakes test has been a hot-button issue for students and educators since the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, which created the MCAS accountability system.


“This is part of a broken system that has been going on far too long.”

MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy
Deeper Dive
Brief History of Education Reform & MCAS
The MCAS tests came to our schools as a result of 1993 state education reform act.  
Read more
Lessons Learned
Making major decisions based on standardized tests has failed.
MCAS Tests Are Not Standards
They are limited assessments that address only a small portion of the state standards.
Learn more