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Test Scores Should Not Deny Diplomas

By David M. Debartolo

Barring a major transformation in the abilities of Massachusetts high school students over the next three years, more than a quarter of the high school class of 2003 will not be eligible to receive a diploma.

This crisis is the result of the implementation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a series of statewide standardized tests that every high school student must pass to graduate, beginning with the class of 2003. This high-stakes, high-standards test is the first in the nation to require students to reach what may be a prohibitively high level of competence for the average student. For months, educators and parents around the state have been waiting with bated breath to see what grade would constitute a passing mark on this test. That grade was revealed on Nov. 23, when the Massachusetts Board of Education recommended that students be required to score in the "needs improvement" category or above on both the math and English sections of the test.

Some parents criticized this cutoff, which is just above the "failing" level, as too low a standard. However, judging from last year's eighth grade test results, many students will not be able to raise their scores enough over the next three years even to reach the "needs improvement" level. Last year, 40 percent of students scored in the "failing" category on the math section, while 13 percent failed the English portion. If these same students took the test tomorrow, they would not receive their diplomas.

Although these statistics may imply that the MCAS is an unreasonable measure of students' education, there are many ways that the test will be an invaluable weapon in the educational arsenal. MCAS has a sophisticated evaluative system that gives scores out not only to individual students but also to school districts, schools and specific classrooms. By analyzing these scores, educators will be able to determine which areas of the curriculum are successful and which teachers are most effective. By the same token, the tests should identify many areas for improvement and innovation.

However, these possible benefits are coming at too high a cost for the class of 2003. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, there will be far too many students coming out of the public schools sans diploma unless there is a dramatic increase in test scores. In our increasingly technological society, the lack of a high school diploma can be a crippling disadvantage. To deny graduation to so great a segment of the population at such an early stage in the history of this test, when its content and grading mechanism are still unclear, would be a grave mistake, helping neither the students nor the educational system.

The students who will be clawing for their passing grade were first exposed to this type of test in eighth grade, and their low scores did not come as a great shock. The standardized frameworks for English and math, on which the test is based, were completed only a couple of years ago. Since they were distributed, teachers have been expected to adapt to these frameworks, and students have tried valiantly to mold their answers to the format that the MCAS encourages. However, the timetable has been too short, and it is the students who are being shortchanged.

A better system would have two levels of diplomas, a good old-fashioned high school diploma and an honors diploma, much like the Regents system in New York. Students who excelled in school and reached the "proficient" or "advanced" level on the exam would be recognized for their achievements, while students who completed all high school requirements and passed their courses but not the test would receive an ordinary diploma. This policy would take advantage of the best aspect of the test, its ability to identify the most effective parts of the educational system, while avoiding the travesty of denying diplomas to a massive segment of the student population. In other words, the test would keep high standards while slightly lowering the stakes.

Fundamentally, the argument comes down to the idea that a student's entire high school career should not depend on one fickle test, for no test provides a perfect measurement of achievement. A high school diploma should not be a giveaway, but neither should it depend upon what appear to be unrealistically high expectations of performance. Students should receive some sort of a diploma if they pass the required high school courses.

If a massive infusion of effort would cause scores to improve so substantially that very few students would fail the exam, then perhaps the proposed high stakes system would be reasonable. However, overall scores rose only very slightly from the first time the test was taken to the second time. In some areas, scores fell despite classroom emphasis on test preparation. It seems clear that scores on this test, like the quality of education in general, can change only gradually. Three years is not enough time to improve a 40 percent failure rate to a reasonable success rate.

The MCAS is mandated by the Education Reform Act of 1993, the intent of which was to encourage investment and interest in Massachusetts schools. The state has devoted a great many resources to improving the quality of education under this legislation. Standards and expectations have been raised, and much-needed attention has been focused on the schools. However, if more than a quarter of the total high school class across the state fails to receive a diploma because of one test, the outrage will cause an immense backlash against education reform, with destructive consequences. The state must encourage and enable students, teachers and administrators to improve themselves--it must not threaten them.

David M. DeBartolo is a first-year in Greenough Hall.

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