MCAS and Learned Helplessness


MCAS and Learned Helplessness

Standardized testing sucks. I’m sure a great majority of those reading this agree with the above statement.  We might not all agree that such testing is necessary in many instances, but this isn’t the time for that debate. Relying on standardized testing such as MCAS in many circumstances is a bad decision and can result in some unintended consequences. These consequences impact our most challenging and needy students.

The Introduction Of MCAS: Immediate Test Anxiety

I was working at a chapter 766 private school when the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was first instituted in 1993.  These students were sent to us from their home districts because they were unable to succeed in their local public schools.  Between tuition and transportation, the districts paid around $50K per student, so districts did not send us students unless there were significant issues. 

Students’ disability categories ranged from Specific Learning Disability (SLD) to emotional (anxiety to major mental illness) to Autism/Asperger’s syndrome (now ASD).  Many had multiple disabilities; the Gifford School was a very rewarding, yet extremely challenging, place to work.

The impact of MCAS on students was immediate and profound.  Students who already “knew” that they could not succeed were faced with what they saw as an impossible task — an all-or-nothing exam to determine if they will graduate and earn a high school diploma. 

Anxiety skyrocketed.  Behavior rocked in classrooms and hallways.  Usually calm, pleasant students were not themselves; they acted out or spent hours in the counselor’s office.  Some students became actively suicidal.

By 1999, I had earned my MSW, but I was burnt out from working full-time with ED/BD students.  I changed careers and spent the next decade working my way up the IT career ladder while I founded ETI and developed the best #MTEL-prep programs in the known universe (www.joinETI.com & www.PassTheMTEL.com ). 

As I progressed from Desktop Support Tech to Network Administrator to IT Director, I remained in the field of education as a tutor and consultant. I worked with families of talented but sometimes challenging high school students; I was not ignorant to the continuing struggles of the MCAS generation.

The Long Term Impact

Many things had changed by the time I returned to special education in the fall of 2009.  As the Special Education Case Manager of a Massachusetts high school, I had to learn all the new procedures and paperwork. 

One thing that did not change was the impact of MCAS. However, the impact crater had significantly widened.  Because of shrinking budgets, many of my public school students in 2009 would have been out-of-district a decade earlier; public schools were dealing with more complex and challenging students.

I noticed that much of the fun and creativity had been removed from the curriculum.  At the FA Day Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts, where I had last worked before changing careers, they used to host an annual cross-school, cross-curricular celebration. It was an ancient Roman festival, organized upon completion of the unit on ancient Rome.

The event was awesome, but this wonderful community celebration was cut due to MCAS. Time to plan, prepare, and participate in such events could no longer be “wasted” as educators were increasingly encouraged to teach to the test.

A big part of my current job is to work with teachers on behalf of students.  One of the first things that struck me when I started was how strong the teaching staff was.  There were, of course, some inferior teachers, but on-the-whole, they were excellent. 

However, I was also struck by the number of times teachers wanted to move students who were on IEPs out of their inclusion classrooms into special education sub-separate (small group) classes.  It was not long before I realized that the special education students skewed MCAS, and teachers did not want to have their scores lowered by struggling students.

The MCAS Result: Learned Helplessness

The most troubling issue with student learning that I noticed has worsened over the last 12 years — learned helplessness.

More of my special education students come to the high school having developed learned helplessness; they do not believe they can learn, so they don’t even try. The curriculum in the lower grades has become too difficult, and the gap between the top and bottom quartiles of students is widening.

“Learned helplessness” is a theory posed American psychologist Martin Seligman.  Back in the 1960s when such experiments could gain university approval, he put dogs in cages and shocked them. 

There was no way for the dogs to escape.  Eventually, the dogs did not move when the electricity was turned on; they had learned that there was nothing they could do to escape the pain, so they did nothing but yelp, whimper, and defecate in place. Learned helplessness has been used to explain why people remain in abusive relationships.

I do not have any fancy stats to back this up; I am basing this on my experiences and observations over the last 25 years.  These ideas began to crystalize for me while watching my youngest daughter progress through elementary school.

Maria attended a very good elementary school in a very good public school district in Massachusetts.  She is a good student. There were years when her teacher said she needed a bit of help with certain things, and there were years where she was ahead of the group. She never identified with the top students in class, but she was confident and hard-working—solidly at grade-level.

In the 5th or 6th grade, she was studying cellular biology — organelles and the like.  She struggled.  Her preteen mind had not yet developed to the point where she could easily comprehend the abstract concepts of “cells,” “ribosomes,” and “endoplasmic reticulum.”  She worked and studied hard.

Fortunately, she has an involved father who teaches this stuff.  Maria persevered and did well. This was not the first or last time I noticed this, but I realized that my special education students who were currently in high school had suffered through the same curricula as Maria.

How the hell were students who were less capable, less confident, and less supported at home able to successfully navigate such challenging material?

The unfortunate answer is that they weren’t.

Examining The Bigger Picture

I considered the bigger picture. How would legions of elementary teachers handle implementing a curriculum that was beyond the capacity of half the class?

Would they fail half the class and keep them back?  Nope. We rarely hold kids back anymore.

These kids were passed along.

I am not blaming the teachers, students, or administrators; the system is flawed.

Our most vulnerable students — special education, ELL, or the economically disadvantaged (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here) — are, as always, short-changed.  They cannot learn what’s expected, so they learn not to try.  My students today in 2020 demonstrate little perseverance.  Students’ confidence and ability to persevere through challenging material has diminished significantly during my current tenure.

This lack of perseverance, confidence, and learned helplessness is what concerns me most.

Are we preparing our students for future education or a career?  I don’t worry about the top students. They will be just fine in any system, but what about “the others”?  The SLD, ED/BD, ELL, socioeconomically at-risk, etc.?

Seligman’s dogs were eventually taught how to avoid shocks. They were physically pulled to the other side of the cage that wasn’t electrified.  I run about 200 special education meetings every year, and we spend our time dragging students to their success.  Our time would be better spent enriching students’ experiences rather than convincing them that they are capable human beings who can make a difference in their own lives and in the world.


Are rigorous, standardized exams helping or hurting Massachusetts students?  Is it “raising the bar” and improving students’ performance or leaving students and their teachers behind and at a loss to keep up?

My hunch is that the top students are benefitting from being challenged while the others are left behind.

It seems that the MCAS culture has come to mirror society –the gap is widening.

I am not advocating that MCAS be abolished, but we need to understand the unintended consequences and lasting impact on those who most need engaging and appropriate curricula.

Our most needy students need high expectations as much or even more than high achievers. More importantly, they need to develop self-efficacy, confidence, and perseverance.

The current system is proving to be more of a detriment than a remedy.

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