More Than MCAS

Real reform must come to Massachusetts before diplomas are withheld from students

Last week, officials learned the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores for Cambridge’s high school students. The results revealed that 24 percent of Cambridge Rindge and Latin students had failed the exam. Sparked by this disappointing outcome, the Cambridge School Committee will, in the next few weeks, discuss how it should handle this MCAS crisis. This year the statewide exam is also a graduation requirement—those who fail will be denied state-recognized diplomas. With such a disappointing pass-rate, the School Committee should lobby the state for major reforms, and failing that, issue local diplomas.

Standardized tests alone will not improve the education of this country’s children. Tests of reasonable length might be good as diagnostic measures—to pinpoint which students, classes or schools need extra help. But actual improvements in education can only occur when reforms are made. Tests need to be combined with better staff training, better teaching, better use of resources and better organization to have any significant effect. And while standardized tests can be used for diagnostics, by only testing certain skills, they are not full measures of student achievement. These imperfect tests should not be linked to graduation in any state.

Under the highly-politicized status quo, however, Massachusetts is unlikely to eliminate MCAS as a graduation requirement. As such, the state should delay MCAS from being linked to graduation until the state curriculum is fully implemented at the local level, teaching quality improves and schools get the necessary resources. While MCAS curriculum has been available to local schools for more than four years, the state only legislates that students take four years of English and two years of physical education. But the MCAS tests are far broader. Consequently, many schools are still not prepared to teach the MCAS curriculum. As state and federal aid to local governments is cut back due to budget crises, educational spending is de facto cut, making planning even more difficult for local schools. Massachusetts must alleviate these inconsistencies before the MCAS can take full diploma-denying effect.

In Cambridge, students who do not pass the MCAS on the first try have the option to take a remedial preparation course before the summer retest date. At the very least, it is imperative that these courses be available across the state to all failing students. If the state requires this test—and makes it difficult for students who fail to matriculate at state universities—then the state must give students every opportunity to pass.

The School Committee is faced with a daunting challenge. Apart from pressing for broader reforms, it must do its best to help students pass this exam and continue to provide remedial help to those who do not pass at first. For students who do not pass the MCAS, even after their final retest, the Committee should issue “local diplomas”—not recognized by the state—to students who complete all their other requirements. Local control over education is essential, and at the very least, non-Massachusetts colleges will recognize that these students have graduated.


In educating America’s children, leaving no child behind demands solutions that go beyond form fitting, cookie cutter standardized tests. Massachusetts must recognize this before it withholds thousands of diplomas.