MCAS: Making Children Anxious and Sad

Pretending to Make Schools Better
By Daniel Koretz
288 pp. University of Chicago Press. $25.
Available at Brookline Booksmith

by Mike Offner
January 2018

Test scores are a primary focus of the administration of the Public Schools of Brookline, and the costs are substantial: teachers feel pressured to “teach to the test” rather than to teach in the manner they feel is best for our children; Brookline students feel considerable stress and anxiety about the tests; the testing itself uses large amounts of time that could be otherwise focused on teaching and learning; and children who are part of groups labeled as “underperforming” can experience feelings of helplessness, marginalization, and low self-esteem.

Given these costs, what are the benefits? Does all of this testing accomplish something worthwhile? Does it help Brookline students learn, achieve, or grow?

Harvard professor Daniel Koretz’s latest work, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better makes a compelling case that the culture and policy of testing not only offers few if any benefits, but in fact does considerable damage to public school students and the greater public school communities. Koretz has studied testing for more than 30 years, has published five books and dozens of articles, and has a CV that is 25 pages long. He writes:

Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today. It shapes what is taught and how it is taught. It influences the problems students are given in math class (often questions from earlier tests), the materials they are given to read, the essays and other work they are required to produce, and often the manner in which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired. In many cases it determines which students are promoted or graduate. This is the result of decades of “education reforms” that progressively expand the amount of externally imposed testing and ratcheted up the pressure to raise test scores.

In Brookline, our children take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests in Grades Three through Eight, and then again in Grade Ten. Third Grade teachers, knowing that their students will take the MCAS for the first time, know that they will inevitably be judged, at least in part, by their students’ MCAS scores.

And although students do not take the MCAS in Second Grade, the Second Grade teachers feel pressure to have their students well trained in test-oriented questions so that these teachers do not “let down” their colleagues who teach Third Grade. And so it goes, all the way down to kindergarten, where teachers cannot escape the pressure to send their students along to each successive grade well prepared for the MCAS, so as not to create undue stress or negati ve attention f or any of their colleagues.

Brookline is hardly unique in suffering from the many negative aspects of the test-driven culture of public education. According to Professor Koretz:

Test-based accountability has led teachers to waste time on all manner of undesirable test preparation -- for example, teaching children tricks to answer multiple-choice questions or ways to game the rules used to score tests. Testing and test preparation have displaced a sizable share of actual instruction, in a school year that is already short by international standards.

One might wonder, “Does what Professor Koretz writes about really apply to Brookline? Aren’t we progressive and sophisticated enough to not fall victim to the test-prep pressure that Professor Koretz describes?”

A starting point to answer those questions is the memo that is sent to Brookline principals and teachers at the start of each year, telling them how classroom time should be allocated. This annual memo from the Brookline Office of the Superintendent starts as follows:

Each year we send out the time allocations document centrally to all teachers. Each year, the time allocation document induces anxiety in many teachers as they find that the time allocations are not realistic and cannot be met within our school day.

Given that this statement is directly from our superintendent’s office, Brookline parents might ask, “If the time allocations memo causes so much anxiety and is not realistic, why hasn’t the superintendent’s office changed it?”

The evidence of the emphasis that Brookline puts on MCAS preparation is apparent in the time allocations memo itself. The MCAS for grades Three through Eight tests two areas, which it defines as “English Language Arts” and “Mathematics.” And sure enough, in the Brookline time allocations memo, teachers in Grades K through Five are told to spend a total of about 60% of instructional time on areas defined, literally, as “English Language Arts” and “Mathematics.” The remainder of time is divided among: Social Studies, Science, Art, Music, Physical Education, and World Language. In other words, our classrooms’ time allocations are approximately as follows:

But what’s wrong with tests?

“What’s wrong with tests?” a Brookline parent might ask. “Don’t we want to know how well our children are learning?”

Professor Koretz offers three categories of pernicious corruption of teaching that test-focused education culture creates: (1) reallocation between subjects; (2) reallocation within a subject; and (3) coaching.

The reallocation between subjects is illustrated above in the pie chart showing Brookline’s Time Allocation Guidelines. The case of Brookline is consistent with what Koretz has observed generally: “To start, what would you expect to happen if you put great pressure on teachers to raise their scores on tests of a few subjects but ignored everything else? This is not rocket science: you would expect them to cut back on things that don’t count and shift resources to the tested subjects.... We’ve known for decades that they often cut back on subjects like social studies, art, and music.”

And many Brookline parents might share Professor Koretz’s concern that “[s]tudents who don’t learn social studies and science, for example, are poorly equipped to be informed citizens and will be less competent in many lines of work.”

Professor Koretz also writes, “Some educators have also curtailed nonacademic but important activities, such as recess. (Anyone who thinks that recess is unimportant hasn’t taught in an elementary school.)”

Indeed, it’s as though Professor Koretz were thinking specifically of Brookline, as at the start of the 2017-2018 academic year, the Brookline administration reduced Second Grade recess at Runkle by 50%, despite the extensive evidence that recess is critical to students’ academic achievement and other outcomes, as explained by Dr. Rebecca Breslow , who is a Brookline parent as well as a Sports Medicine physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Koretz observes further that even within a given subject, teachers feel pressure to teach only the precise content that tests measure. “Why would I teach irregular polygons?” he quotes a Boston teacher as asking, and then explains, “She didn’t mean that irregular polygons are unimportant; she meant that to the best of her recollection, irregular polygons didn’t appear on the state test for the grades she taught.”

And finally, there is the problem of “coaching.” For example, teachers can feel pressure to use the “process of elimination” (POE) approach to selecting correct answers on standardized tests. “The problem with POE,” Koretz writes, “is that some of the students who find the correct answer by eliminating incorrect ones would be unable to generate the correct answer if they weren’t given alternatives from which to select...”

Then there is the strategy of “plugging in” numbers to an equation in a test to find something that works. For example, teachers have learned to teach students that the dimensions of triangles are usually 3, 4, and, 5, or, alternatively, 5, 12, and 13, because these are the lowest sets of integers that work for the Pythagorean Theorem , a favorite topic of test-makers. So these dimensions are known as “Pythagorean Triples.”

Of course, in the real world, triangles don’t necessarily have these convenient dimensions. But the message, Koretz writes, is “Don’t bother memorizing the complicated theorem; just memorize the triples, which is easier and faster. Most of the students will get the item right, and everyone can go home happy. Well, almost everyone. Just don’t hire one of them to build your roof.”


One of the claims about education reform and its central use of testing is that it can increase “equity,” or, broadly speaking, the score gaps between disadvantaged groups and advantaged groups. Unfortunately it’s the other way around. Koretz writes that testing actually hurts disadvantaged children:

As if all of this were not depressing enough, there is yet another disturbing part of the story. Inappropriate test preparation, like score inflation, is more severe in some places than in others. Teachers of high-achieving students have less reason to indulge in bad preparation for high-stakes tests because the majority of their students will score adequately without it -- in particular, above the “proficient” cut score that counts for accountability purposes. So one would expect that test preparation would be a more severe problem in schools serving high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and it is. Once again, disadvantaged kids are getting the short end of the stick. Ironically, some aspects of the reforms that were intended to help disadvantaged students appear to have contributed to this demoralizing result.

And Professor Koretz has good company in his view that focusing on test scores is actually in equitable. For example, American University Professor Ibram Kendi, in his article “Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea,” writes:

These days, many people are criticizing the testing movement. Colleges are slowly diminishing the importance of standardized testing in admissions decisions. We are seeing unprecedented numbers of wealthy white parents opting their school children out of these tests.

But few testing critics are bursting its biggest bubble: the existence of the achievement gap itself. To believe in the existence of any sort of racial hierarchy is actually to believe in a racist idea. The achievement gap between the races–with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinos at the bottom–is a racial hierarchy. And this popular racial hierarchy has been constructed by our religious faith in standardized testing ....

What if we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment: how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and nonverbal vocabularies of their everyday life?

What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we measured intellect by how open an individual’s mind is to self-critique and new ideas?

What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are? What if we realized the best way to standardize a highly effective educational system is not by standardizing our tests but by standardizing our schools to encourage intellectual openness and difference?

But intellectual difference , and multiple literacies, languages, and vocabularies, are only valued in a multi-cultural society that truly values diversity and difference. The testing movement does not value multiculturalism. The testing movement does not value the antiracist equality of difference. The testing movement values the racist hierarchy of difference, and its bastard 100-year-old child: the academic achievement gap.

And UMass Professor Ricardo Rosa has written in Voices of Urban Education that “[p]erformance assessments must be culturally responsive in order to truly serve the needs of students from all backgrounds.” Professor Rosa explains further:

If we begin, as I do, from the perspective that institutions, including schools, are designed in the image and interests of those who rule, we must be very cautious about re-creating an educational reform environment where people of color and the poor will continue to be marginalized. If performance-based assessment is considered in the same frame as current testing regimes, which is entirely possible, it becomes just another reform fad (I don’t mean to suggest that performance-based assessments is a new one) that re-inscribes the power of systems of categorization and the conferring of rewards to those who are already materially, racially, and culturally privileged. From this perspective, performance-based assessments become another repressive surveillance technique in the lives of children and adolescents.

What now?

Given the failings of standardized testing, Professor Koretz recommends that schools focus on more holistic and fundamental evaluations of classroom practices and student outcomes, and acknowledge explicitly that many critical factors in students’ achievement are completely outside of schools’ control. He recommends, for example, that communities try to evaluate how well they help their children learn how to persist at challenging tasks and how to work well in groups.

Further, he stresses the important of human judgement as opposed to computer-generated data: “...we need to accept the need for human judgment in evaluating schools. This is in some ways unfortunate, given the difficult problems inherent in relying on judgement, but there really is no practical alternative. We will need to find better ways to use judgement, not avoid it.”

Professor Koretz also recommends creating counterbalances to administrators’ incentive to focus on test scores: “If principals have an incentive to eliminate recess to squeeze out a little more time for test prep,” he writes, “someone should have an incentive to put a stop to this.”

In addition, Professor Koretz offers some compelling and fascinating descriptions of the public education systems in Finland, Holland, and Singapore. While it’s not clear how practical these examples are for the United States’ own systems, the discussion of these other nations’ approaches is thought-provoking and enlightening.


Anyone who wonders how much the issues in The Testing Charade apply to Brookline need only have open and candid conversations with our teachers and students. The right answer for our children seems to be that beyond meeting state requirements for offering the MCAS for Grades 3-8 and for Grade 10, the Public Schools of Brookline should not make standardized testing or test scores a focal point of policies or priorities in any manner.

In Holliston, MA, Superintendent Brad Jackson, who is also the vice president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, told teachers that he is “taking their handcuffs off” and encouraging them to teach in the manner they believe is best for their students without regard to the MCAS. It’s a remarkable display of courage, leadership, and commitment to the well being of children. If you believe The Testing Charade, Brookline should follow.

Brookline Book Reviewer Mike Offner is a parent of children in the Public Schools of Brookline.

Jack Schneider, “Beyond Test Scores,” Sept 20th, Harvard Coop

by The Coop Event Series...Authors, Coop Kids & More!

Wed, Sept 20, 7:00 – 8:30 PM

Harvard Coop, 1400 Mass Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138

Beyond Test Scores reframes current debates over school quality by offering new approaches to educational data that can push us past our unproductive fixation on test scores. Using the highly diverse urban school district of Somerville, Massachusetts, as a case study, Schneider and his research team developed a new framework to more fairly and comprehensively assess educational effectiveness. And by adopting a wide range of measures aligned with that framework, they were able to more accurately capture a broader array of school strengths and weaknesses. Their new data not only provided parents, educators, and administrators with a clearer picture of school performance, but also challenged misconceptions about what makes a good school.

About the Author

Jack Schneider is Assistant Professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross and Director of Research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.

34 problems with standardized tests

 April 19 at 12:57 PM


In March I wrote about a decision by three justices on a Florida appeals court that said that a standardized reading test is the best way to decide whether third-graders should move to fourth grade — not actual school work or grades.

The case involves a Florida law that says that students who fail a third-grade language arts test can’t move on to the fourth grade (though some exemptions are made). While the policy has not been shown to have a lasting benefit to students, Florida and other states maintain it anyway.

Some third-graders — including honors students — from a number of school districts were denied promotion because they opted out of the test. The parents of those students, who are part of a national testing opt-out movement, went to court and sued their districts. In August, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers ruled that those school districts that had refused to promote the students had been wrong. The case was appealed and the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned her ruling, saying:

The purpose of the ELA is to assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before (and after) being promoted to fourth grade. See § 1008.25(5)(a). The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.

That ruling ignored years of research that shows that high-stakes standardized test scores are not reliable or valid, and it ignored the problems Florida has had with its standardized testing accountability system, which became so severe that school superintendents statewide revolted in 2015 and said they had “lost confidence” in its accuracy.

Here’s a look at all the things standardized tests can’t do, by veteran Florida educator Marion Brady,  who has written history and world culture textbooks (Prentice-Hall),  professional books, numerous  nationally distributed columns (many are available here), and courses of study. His 2011 book, “What’s Worth Learning,” asks and answers this question: What knowledge is absolutely essential for every learner? His course of study for secondary-level students, called “Connections: Investigating Reality,” is free for downloading here. Brady’s website is

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How the SAT and PSAT collect personal data on students — and what the College Board does with it

March 30

If your child takes the SAT or PSAT, is his or her personal information being collected, profiled, licensed and sold?

That is the question that Cheri Kiesecker, Colorado parent and member of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, asks and attempts to answer in the following important post. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy is a national alliance of parents and advocates defending the rights of parents and students to protect their data.

The SAT has traditionally been used as a college entrance exam but it, and the ACT, also a college entrance exam, are increasingly being used as high school tests. In fact, 25 states now require that high school students take them for school accountability purposes, Education Week reported here.

The protection of personal data is in the news with the recent passage by Congress of legislation that eliminates landmark online privacy protections established by the Obama administration. It removes limits that had been placed on Internet service providers —  such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon — on how they can use data they collect on their customers, including browsing habits and Social Security numbers. Privacy advocates are especially concerned with how this will affect young people.

Here’s the post by Kiesecker, and following it is a response from the College Board, which owns the SAT and the PSAT exams.

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Local legislators reconsider the standardized test

Local legislators reconsider the standardized test

After fielding hundreds of calls from concerned parents, local teachers, and administrators frustrated by an education system they see as increasingly obsessed with standardized test scores, nearly 100 state legislators have joined in support of a bill that would freeze for three-years the use of state assessments.

Those supporting the sweeping education reform package, known as Bill S.308, include legislators representing most of The Middlesex East’s coverage area, including Wakefield, Woburn, Tewksbury, Wilmington, Reading, Wakefield, Winchester, and Stoneham.

“I felt over the last few years that too much time is dedicated towards preparing and studying for the test. The students are losing time with other subject matters they could be learning otherwise,” said State Rep. James Miceli (D-Wilmington), who is a strong supporter of rethinking the state’s MCAS policies.

"I co-sponsored the high-stakes testing bill (S.308) after speaking with teachers, administrators and educational professionals about the growing burden of testing on our students,” State Rep. James Dwyer, a Woburn democrat, commented in a separate interview. “Don't get me wrong; I believe there needs to be assessments to determine our students' growth and achievement. However, when our system of education becomes so assessment centered, I think we need to take a step back.”

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8 Reasons To Opt Out

Peter Greene, Curmudgucation, Wednesday, March 8, 2017

 Depending on your state, it is that time again-- time to waste students' school time on the Big Standardized Test. Whether it's the PARCC or the SBA or whatever mutant offspring of the testing industry that your state prefers, it's headed your way like a hungry wildebeast.

Maybe you have opted your child out in the past. Maybe you've thought about it, but ultimately decided not to. Maybe you've even become comfortably numb about test-driven education. Consider opting out this year.

If you want to read more, wider, deeper perspectives on the movement, click on over to United Opt Out. If you want to find out the specific mechanics of opting out in your state, just google "opt out" and your state. For instance, if I look for "opt out Pennsylvania," I find the basic instructions for the steps I must take to opt my children out of testing (since my children are currently Negative 3 Months old, it won't be an issue this year, but I like to be prepared).

If you opt out, you may will get grief and pushback for your choice. Here's why you should do it anyway.

1) No Benefits for Children or Parents

Your child is not allowed to discuss specifics of the test with anyone, so there will be no after-test conversation that would help her glean lessons through reflection. Your child will not get any specific feedback telling her which answers she got right, and which she got wrong. You will not get any feedback on the test except a single blanket score between 4 (super-duper) and 1 (not so great). Once this test is done, you will not know anything about your child that you did not already know.

2) No Benefits for Teachers

In most states, we are not even allowed to lay eyes on the test, and we will receive a single score for your child. All of this is useless. We will learn nothing about your child, and nothing about your child's class (except how well they did on this test). If an administrator or a teacher tells you that the test results will give them valuable information about your child, ask them why they have not already collected that information by other means and if not, what they've been doing for the past eight months.

3) Wasted Time and Resources

What could your student have done with the time spent on preparing for the test, drilling for the test, taking the test? What could your state and local school system have done with the millions of dollars spent on giving the test? Students, parents and schools are paying big in both financial and opportunity costs.

4) Warped View of School and Life

Test-centric schooling leaves our students with the impression that they go to school to learn how to pass the test, and then to take the test. That is a terrible model for learning and for life. Contrary to what test supporters say, life is not all about standardized tests. You will not take a bubble test to get married or to have and raise children. Whatever your career, it will not involve a steady daily diet of test prep and test taking. Show your child that the Big Standardized Test is not the point of school.

5) Don't Negotiate with Hostage Takers

You may hear that your child must take the test because otherwise it will hurt the school or the classroom teacher. This is simply hostage taking. And it's important to remember that every year this continues, schools and teachers continue to pay a price-- in time, in money, in the growth of a pervasive toxic test-driven atmosphere. This argument is a bully who says, "If you don't let me beat this kid up, I will beat him up even more." In any bullying situation, the person to blame is not the victim the person that the bully uses as an excuse to bully. The problem is not that your child isn't taking the test-- the problem is the state that is threatening to punish the school and teachers. Deal with the real problem; don't enable it.

6) Privacy Matters

This is certainly not the only mechanism being deployed to capture, collect and monetize data about your child. In fact, many folks who position themselves as opponents of BS Tests are actually doing so to build a case for other data collecting methods (but we'll talk about Competency Based Education another day). But opting out is certainly one clear and immediate way that you can keep some of your child's data out of the hands of the Big Data miners.

7) The Value of Non-compliance

In this day and age, it is never too early for a child to learn that sometimes people in authority will demand that you comply with dumb actions. Unthinking compliance is unwise. It's good for all citizens to learn to say "no," and the Big Standardized Test is a good practice case for all the reasons listed above. Compliance is not a virtue in and of itself; this is a great chance to practice rebelling just a little.

8) Be a Snowflake

It's true-- your opting out may well not get your state or school district to change policy, may not recapture all the time and money being lost to testing, may not change the course on which we're currently set. But then again-- if you are one among many, it might. Put enough snowflakes together and you get an avalanche that crushes everything in its path.

The requirement to make schools test-centic, to put bad tests at the center of school's existence is foolish, on the order of demanding that all students wear silly hats. At this stage of the game, there can be no doubt-- there are no benefits to the test and many unnecessary costs. It will not go away easily, because test manufacturers are making a ton of money on this giant time suck. It's time to make your life a source of friction in the machine.

This year, whether it's for the first time or the tenth, opt out.

State Officials Vague on New Standardized Test

Doug Page, Bay State Parent, March 14, 2017

State Officials Vague on New Standardized Test

Massachusetts students in Grades 3 through 8 will take a new standardized test this month, but it’s unclear how new the test really is.

Dubbed “MCAS 2.0” in October 2015 by Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the new test was proposed by Chester as a compromise between the aging MCAS and the controversial Common Core-aligned PARCC exam. When suggesting a hybrid test, Chester said it would be a combination of Common Core-based questions, like those found on the PARCC, along with those not aligned with Common Core standards. At the time, critics predicted that MCAS 2.0 would be akin to a wolf in sheep’s clothing — a backdoor way to administer the PARCC test to Massachusetts public school students without the critical backlash of adopting the PARCC outright.

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School offers ‘incentives’ to get kids to take Common Core standardized test

 March 8, 2017

We’ve seen in years past pep rallies, parties, raffles and other sorts of enticements — which some might call bribes — for students before they take high-stakes standardized tests.  In spring 2016, for example, Washington Redskins cheerleaders surprised students at an assembly for students at a Washington elementary school to cheer them on for their Common Core tests.

Now, as school districts around the country get ready to launch into their annual spring testing season, it’s starting to  happen again.

A notice was just sent to families with children attending Jewell Elementary School in Aurora Public Schools, a school with some 530 students in pre-K through fifth grades, most of them minority. The memo actually includes the phrase “PARCC incentives,” with PARCC referring to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, a Common Core test created by a multistate consortium funded by the former Obama administration.

Other schools are also offering incentives in Colorado, one of the states with the largest opt-out movements. New York has had the most opt-outs, with at least 20 percent of students statewide refusing to take accountability tests for the past few years, and officials expecting big numbers again this year.

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School board debates ‘high-stakes’ testing


During a recent meeting, School Committee member Dr. John Wells, referencing legislation recently introduced at the State House that would dramatically alter the manner in which so-called high stakes testing data is used, suggested city officials should take a position on the proposal.

“There seems to be a lot of support [for these changes], and we may want to take a look at whether we want to [weigh in],” said Wells.

Though he didn’t specifically mention the legislation by name, Wells was likely referring to a proposal entitled, “An Act Strengthening and Investing in our Educators, Students, and Communities”, which would implement comprehensive education reforms, including:

• The imposition of a three-year moratorium on the use of MCAS, PARCC, or the next generation MCAS 2.0 testing results as a high school graduation requirement;

• A prohibition on incorporating “student impact” ratings, or indicators based on MCAS or other student assessment data, into teacher evaluation grades;

• New limitations on the state’s power to mandate changes at “underperforming schools”, a designation that is now largely based upon test scores.

• A new recess mandate, which requires school districts to schedule weekly at least 100 minutes of free play time for pupils in grades K-5.

Introduced by State Senator Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury), Bill S.308 has garnered the support of more than 100 other legislators on Beacon Hill, including State Rep. James Dwyer (D-Woburn). In late January it was referred to the State House’s Joint Committee on Education for further study.

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Bill SD.1486 would put a 3-yr moratorium on high-stakes standardized testing

Sen. Michael Rush's Bill SD. 1486 would put a three-year mortatorium on high-stakes testing in Massachusetts and require a re-evaluation of the use of standardized testing in public schools. Here are some highlights:

SECTION 28. (a) Notwithstanding subsection (i) of section one D of chapter 69, during the next three full school years following the effective date of this act, the requirement that a student must demonstrate mastery of a common core of skills, competencies and knowledge as measured by MCAS or another standardized test shall not be required as a condition for high school graduation.

(c) During the next three full school years following the effective date of this act, and notwithstanding the provisions of section 1J and 1K of chapter 69 or any other general or special law to the contrary, the department shall not use student achievement measures on the MCAS assessment or any successor test or use student growth measures based on standardized tests for the purpose of assessing the performance of any public school or school district.

Section 29. (a)

(i) reviewing the use of MCAS or any mandated state assessments, the implementation of the educator evaluation framework established pursuant to section 1I of chapter 69, and the use of student data on standardized tests as a student high school graduation requirement or in evaluating educators, schools, and districts and

(iv) a study of the validity of using student growth percentiles as a component of the educator evaluation framework, and a review of how school districts use, misuse, or plan to use measures of student learning including standardized test scores in the evaluation framework;

Read the whole bill here.