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Tomorrow Massachusetts high school sophomores will take a lengthy standardized test to determine how much they have learned. This test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), will provide essential information to secondary school educators about which areas of their curricula are being absorbed well and which areas need improvement. However, there is another side to this exam: The high school class of 2003, ninth-graders this year, will not receive high school diplomas if they cannot pass the English and mathematics sections of the test, which they will first take as sophomores.
Implemented as a result of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, MCAS is the first test in the nation intended to be both high-stakes and high-standards. This test is not designed as a basic skill proficiency test; students are expected to know a significant amount of material if they are to pass, although they are allowed multiple chances if they fail the first test.
While improvements in education and high standards are certainly important and worthwhile goals, MCAS will have an unconscionable consequence. If last year's results are any indication, a significant percentage of high school students across the state will not be allowed to receive diplomas, regardless of their record in high school. Last year, 40 percent of students failed the math section of the test and 13 percent failed the English section.
Even more troubling is the fact that minorities and urban school districts fared much more poorly on the test than their more wealthy, suburban counterparts. In Boston, 59 percent of the regular education students who took the sophomore math test failed. Another 10 percent didn't even come to school. The numbers get worse when you include students with learning disabilities and limited English proficient students, all of whom will also be required to pass the test in order to graduate. Only two percent of Boston sophomores with disabilities and a miniscule one percent of students with limited English proficiency passed the math portion.
Massachusetts teachers seem to have failed the testing process as well. There were wide discrepancies in the test's administration, with some teachers assisting their students by giving similar questions ahead of time. Given that the curriculum on which the tests are based has been available for several years, it is unlikely that teachers will be able to substantially change the passing rate in less than 12 months.
If major changes are not made to MCAS, the consequences are predictable. Regardless of whether high school graduates should be expected to know the material tested, the immediate impact of making graduation contingent on next year's tests will not be an improvement in teaching and educational standards. The immediate impact will be another round of widespread failures, which will do a great deal of damage to the educational process.
As a significant portion of students fail, the dropout rate will skyrocket, and it will be disproportionately students from poorer districts who need a solid secondary education the most. Many students who come to school, pass their classes and fulfill graduation requirements will leave without a diploma, which is a prerequisite to advancement in today's technology-driven economy. There must be some less painful way to improve educational standards in Massachusetts.
The state must adopt a more fair and realistic approach to MCAS. Retaining the test as an index of school and individual performance rather than a graduation requirement would give schools a similar incentive to improve standards without unduly punishing the students. Alternatively, giving another type of diploma to students who receive a certain score on the test--a system similar to the Regents exams in New York--would help to indicate and reward achievement.
A student's graduation from high school should never be contingent on one standardized test. While MCAS will help districts measure the relative success of their curricula in certain areas, it will also inflict too much punishment on too many students. High standards are important to improving student performance, but if they are coupled with a punitive test, Massachusetts education will suffer rather than benefit.
Better Schools, Not Lower Standards
The MCAS standards demand that high school seniors pass a relatively basic math and English test geared toward tenth graders. Questions ask students to identify the main clause in a sentence, identify the rate of increase if the minimum wage goes from $5.25 per hour to $5.75 per hour and demonstrate similar basic skills. The staff shortchanges high schoolers when it suggests this is an unreasonably high standard of material to expect them to know. And the staff would do the students no favors by sending them out into the world without these basic math and English skills.
While the staff is right to worry that too many students will fail these tests if nothing is done, the right thing to do is not to abolish the test as a graduation requirement--it is to give students the skills they need to pass the tests and succeed outside of high school. Similarly, if minority students and students from urban districts fare poorly on the test, this indicates a need to devote more educational resources to those districts, not a need to exempt those districts from standards altogether.
Instead of giving diplomas to poorly qualified students, schools should use the test to target remedial instruction and keep students in school until they've really earned their degrees.
--Vasant M. Kamath '02, Rachel P. Kovner '01 and Scott A. Resnick '01
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