Hull resident Deborah McCarthy, now in her 25th year as a fifth-grade teacher at Jacobs Elementary School, expressed her continuing opposition to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing by refusing to administer the first round of this year’s exams to her students.
McCarthy, the only Hull teacher to request “conscientious objector” status with regard to MCAS, was buoyed by the presence of more than two dozen supporters when she arrived at the school on Monday, May 24, and also by the fact that many Cambridge educators also refused to administer the exam as conscientious objectors.
McCarthy’s mother, retired longtime Hull schoolteacher Nancy Dunn, was at the school on Monday to support her daughter, holding signs that read, “Don’t discipline Debbie” and “Let Deb teach.”
According to McCarthy, she was placed on paid administrative leave for one day for refusing to administer the tests on May 21 and 24.
McCarthy explained to The Hull Times the main reasons why she objects to MCAS testing.
These include the new Galileo assessment system used by HPS for grades one through eight, which she feels is an effective tool to gauge students’ academic achievements without all the stress related to the MCAS exams.
“While the MCAS results aren’t available right away, with Galileo I can tell if the majority of the class has mastered a particular skill, and if not, I can immediately adjust the lesson,” McCarthy said. She said she also is opposed to “teaching to a test.”
Another issue, she said, is that Hull doesn’t have the resources to compete with wealthier communities, although HPS students overall tend to fare well when it comes to MCAS results.
At the same time, McCarthy acknowledges that some families support the test “because it rewards students for their good scores.”
McCarthy notified Superintendent of Schools Judith Kuehn and Jacobs Principal Christine Cappadona in a lengthy May 7 letter that she was requesting conscientious objector status for the upcoming MCAS exams, stating in part, “My actions must speak louder than words, my actions must reflect my convictions, my actions must be principled, and above all else, my actions must reflect the educator that my students deserve. I cannot be a silent bystander. I cannot be complicit. I cannot be complacent. I must refuse to willingly administer the upcoming MCAS to my students during a pandemic.” McCarthy called administering these tests during COVID-19 “educational malpractice.”
She also stated in the letter that she has repeatedly engaged in political processes to seek changes to a system that she says “simply measures an opportunity gap, a system that since I have been teaching in fifth grade has resulted in the elimination of our band program, our school librarian, and our buses for after-school enrichment programs. A system that simply functions to benefit an institution that has created a two-tiered system of educational white privilege.”
McCarthy also stated that she believes there is an inherent responsibility in a democracy “to use our collective power and privilege to advocate for those being denied social and racial justice. All deserve the benefits and opportunities provided in a democratic society. All students deserve fully funded schools. All students deserve educational equity. All students deserve the same educational opportunities and experiences that the students in Wellesley get. Now is not the time for the foundation of our democracy — public education — to be testing students; now is the time for the foundation of our democracy to be teaching our students, to be addressing their emotional and social needs, to be offsetting the trauma of this pandemic.”
McCarthy told the Times that she believes the MCAS system “weaponizes black and brown and some other communities based on class. The only thing MCAS does is measure zip codes and support real estate values on Zillow,” she said.
When asked to comment, Kuehn said that “because it’s a personnel matter, no additional information will be provided at this time.”
McCarthy is also a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which spearheaded an initiative earlier this year encouraging local teachers’ unions to request that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education press the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from the MCAS exam and the ACCESS test for all students — including those attending Hull Public Schools — during the current academic year due to COVID-19-related challenges to learning. MCAS exams were cancelled last year amid the pandemic.
The Hull School Committee took a vote on the resolution in March at the request of the Hull Teachers Association. All but then-Chair Jennifer Fleming supported requesting the waiver. The resolution also was backed by a number of major associations related to education.
While some changes in the MCAS system were instituted, the exams were not cancelled this year.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, McCarthy said that the current school year has been “the best year ever I’ve had teaching” due in part to small class sizes and “more teacher autonomy.”
The controversy is not over yet. McCarthy is scheduled to administer the science MCAS test on June 3, but she declined to comment as to whether she plans to do so.
In the meantime, she said, “MCAS tests should end forever.” Instead, she favors something along the lines of a “portfolio assessment,” which would provide an opportunity for students to share the skills they have acquired during their time in school.
“This would be a more well-rounded approach,” McCarthy said. “HPS students are already being assessed all the time, and the [resulting] data is used to drive instruction.”
McCarthy noted that she and her four children graduated from Hull High School, and that she currently has two grandchildren enrolled in HPS.
“I want my grandchildren to have the same great experiences that I had when I attended HPS,” she said.