By 2018, more than a decade after he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Ryan Boyd had passed nearly every single MCAS standardized exam he needed to get his diploma from Marlborough High School.
All that remained in his way was the math test. But in his final try during his senior year, Boyd fell two points short.
"This is the only reason why I was unable to obtain my diploma at my graduation in 2018," Boyd told the Massachusetts Legislature's Education Committee on Monday. "Do you know how heartbroken I was to learn that? I want to repeat again today for everyone in this room: the only reason I was prevented from getting that diploma in 2018 was because I failed my math MCAS by two points after I put in so much hard work and dedication into passing the test."
More than 50,000 students have faced similar circumstances the last nearly 20 years, a point that a chorus of lawmakers and education reform advocates hammered on Monday as they called for the legislature to eliminate the state's MCAS graduation requirements or pause the tests altogether.
"Please do not ever let another child's future be affected by two points," added Boyd, who said he ultimately received his diploma this spring after the school retroactively waived testing requirements.
Teachers unions and some education activists have long targeted the state's MCAS system, complaining that setting the exams as a bar all students must clear forces teachers to narrow their focus on test preparation and creates unnecessary stress in the classroom.
A bill filed by Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. James Hawkins would decouple MCAS from graduation and instead offer what Comerford called "multiple pathways" for students to prove they meet the benchmarks to complete high school, some of which would not require a standardized test.
The legislation would also pilot new ways of measuring district and teacher performance less reliant on MCAS scores and more influenced by community input in partnership with the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.
"I believe in accountability," Comerford said Monday. "What I do not believe in is allowing a single test to determine whether or not a student receives a high school diploma, regardless of whether or not that student passes all of their requisite coursework."
Hawkins argued that as a former 10th-grade math teacher in Attleboro, he knows first-hand how much pressure this puts on teachers to teach to a test, and on students to perform on a high-stakes standardized assessment.
"It was a 3-hour test on Monday, 3-hour test on Tuesday, and a 2-hour test on Wednesday," Hawkins said. "I didn't have to do that to get my MBA, and we're doing this to 15-year-olds!"
Lawmakers created the MCAS system in a 1993 education reform law aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were administered in 1998, and since the class of 2003, students have been required to achieve sufficient scores to graduate.
Most students take the English language arts, math and science tests linked to graduation in 10th grade, though they can retake exams if they do not score high enough.
Asked about the push to reform or replace MCAS exams, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday said he would be "very aggressive about supporting the ongoing process of using diagnostic tools to ensure that kids are getting the basic education that they're entitled to."
The implementation of MCAS exams, Baker said, led to a "profound and significant improvement" in education performance and created a "level playing field" to review how districts, school staff and students fare.
"People can say they don't like MCAS one way or another, but the simple truth is MCAS plus the financing law that was put in place in the original education reform bill was an enormous success," Baker told reporters. "It gave Massachusetts what most people consider to be the best schools in the country overall and also had a very significant and positive impact on kids and underperforming school districts."
There are more than two dozen bills under consideration by the Joint Committee on Education that would abolish or revamp the MCAS.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association not only supports several of the bills, but is pushing for grant money to revamp the current evaluation system.
"This conversation must include a reimaging of student and school assessment," said MTA President Merrie Najimy.
But the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education argues it would be a big mistake to amend, suspend or eliminate MCAS.
"Seeking less information about statewide achievement gaps by undermining the annual MCAS assessment would be tantamount to closing our eyes to inequities," MBAE Executive Director Ed Lambert argued.
Citizens for Public Schools Executive Director Lisa Guisbond told lawmakers that since 2003, more than 52,000 Massachusetts students have reached the end of their senior years without meeting MCAS graduation requirements. More than two-thirds of those, she said, had disabilities.
"The ravages of COVID, disproportionately visited on our communities of color, underscore the need to change an assessment system that has done more to cement inequalities and racism in place than remove them," Guisbond said.
Supporters of the system say the constellation of tests plays a crucial role in tracking how Massachusetts schools are faring on a statewide level and identifying gaps that need to be closed.
Voicing opposition to both the Comerford-Hawkins bill and other proposals to pause administration of high-stakes tests, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Ed Lambert told lawmakers that amending MCAS standards or graduation requirements could hamstring efforts to lift underserved districts, particularly amid implementation of a recent school funding reform law known as the Student Opportunity Act.
"The information that MCAS provides is integral to understanding if we're serving students in the way that our state constitution, the Student Opportunity Act and the moment require of us," Lambert said. "Seeking less information about statewide achievement gaps by undermining the annual MCAS assessment would be tantamount to closing our eyes to inequities."
During Monday's hearing, union leaders, school committee members, educators and students -- including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which on Friday linked the tests to white supremacy -- slammed MCAS as a faulty system that does more harm than good.
Louis Kruger, a Northeastern University professor emeritus and board member at Citizens for Public Schools, said MCAS carries "unintended negative consequences for underserved students."
"As one scholar has pointed out, standardized tests are almost as old as the gas-powered automobile," Kruger said. "In both cases, it is now apparent that the overuse of these technologies has exacerbated their unintended consequences to such an extent that their (dis)advantages often outweigh whatever utility they might have had."
State education officials shifted MCAS plans in response to the pandemic and its impact on student learning, waiving the requirement that students pass the tests to graduate for the class of 2022.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley plans to present "high-level results" from the 2021 spring MCAS exams during a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education scheduled for Tuesday. The board will also be asked to weigh in on a proposal to keep the MCAS scores required to graduate at their current level for the classes of 2024 and 2025.