State education leaders are taking smart steps to lower the stakes in the annual drudgery that is the MCAS in light of a pandemic that’s still keeping students and teachers from going back to classrooms full time.

This year’s batch of high school seniors, much like last year’s, can be forgiven disappointment in a capstone year undone by COVID-19. But at least those who’ve yet to pass the state’s high-stakes standardized test — some 5,000 kids, reports WBUR — no longer have to worry about checking off that requirement in order to earn a diploma. Of course, they still need to pass their English and math classes.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley says he will not flag any new schools or districts as underperforming in the coming year — a designation triggered by low MCAS scores. Also, he promises a shorter test for students in third through eighth grades when they take exams in April and May. To be sure, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education still must agree to his proposed changes.

Tenth-graders getting their first crack at meeting the state’s graduation requirement, and perhaps competing for the prestigious Adams Scholarships, are also scheduled to take the MCAS in May. But the state is loosening its limits on when those tests are given and how long schools may take to administer them.

All of this flexibility is a good thing, seeing as how only a handful of schools in Massachusetts have brought all students back to class in person, and the largest districts continue to offer only remote instruction via the internet. But, as we’ve noted before, flexibility isn’t the best thing.

Aside from the “essential diagnostic purpose” of the MCAS, as Riley called it in a memo to superintendents this week, the tortured logistics of administering the test and its dubious usefulness as a yardstick under pandemic conditions are more than enough reason to skip the whole exercise for a second year.

Of course we worry about the profound effects on education of COVID-19, as Riley mentions in his memo. But as much as we want to understand the scope of that problem, we’re kidding ourselves to believe a scaled-back standardized test in this environment can do the job. A low-calorie version of MCAS will give us a perception of measurement. The danger would be in mistaking that for the real thing.

Students and their parents are as distracted as they are challenged by the limits of technology and at-home instruction. Delivering the MCAS remotely, or dispensing one piecemeal to students in school on some days but not others, will be fraught from the start.

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