Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Mark Warren

Second Advisor

Frank Porell

Third Advisor

Miren Uriarte


For the past 20 years Massachusetts has used a high-stakes, test-based accountability system for the state’s public schools. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) are standardized tests administered in Grades 3-10 which account for the majority of district and school accountability measures, and the Grade 10 tests serve as an individual graduation requirement. The MCAS are given to all public school students in the Commonwealth, including English Learners (ELs) – students whose first language is not English and who do not have sufficient language proficiency to perform ordinary classroom work in English. The MCAS, administered solely in English and with limited accommodations, has from its inception carried disproportionately high failure rates for ELs. I explore the impact that failing the MCAS has on ELs, focusing on the purportedly “low-stakes” MCAS testing administered before high school. Proponents argue that failure on these tests is a benefit to students, providing incentive for students to improve study habits and further serving as important diagnostic information for educators to improve instruction. Through the theories of subtractive schooling, stereotype threat, and learned helplessness, I argue that instead of providing motivation or incentives to improve study habits, repeatedly failing the MCAS causes ELs to disengage academically. To understand the impact that failing the tests has on students, I utilize a Regression Discontinuity design to compare subsequent educational outcomes of students scoring right below the failing threshold to the outcomes of students scoring right above this threshold. I use four outcome measures to understand the reaction to failing the tests: MCAS scores, suspension, chronic absenteeism, and retention. I found that failing the tests is not associated with any positive outcomes for students and in fact receiving a failing label on the MCAS is associated with significantly lower subsequent MCAS scores. There was no evidence that failing the MCAS had any impact, positive or negative, on the other outcomes. These findings were similar when looking at all student groups in the district including ELs. These findings add to the research critiquing the use of high-stakes tests, demonstrating the dangers in standardized tests, even those considered low-stakes by the state.


Free and open access to this Campus Access Dissertation is made available to the UMass Boston community by ScholarWorks at UMass Boston. Those not on campus and those without a UMass Boston campus username and password may gain access to this dissertation through resources like Proquest Dissertations & Theses Global or through Interlibrary Loan. If you have a UMass Boston campus username and password and would like to download this work from off-campus, click on the "Off-Campus UMass Boston Users" link above.