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...Maybe it’s a Good Idea to Worry

The Boston Globe Joseph P. Kennedy II There is a raging controversy taking place in Massachusetts over MCAS exams stemming from high failure rates in many public schools. Members of the tough-love school of thought want to continue the exams in the hope that they will help spur improvements in schools and students alike. Members of the tea party faction want to dump them overboard all together and end the MCAS testing in the Bay State. Somewhere in the middle are advocates of “diploma lite,” who want to continue MCAS exams while offering some form of certificate to seniors who fail the exams after repeated tries but otherwise have met graduation requirements. What the debate has uncovered is not just failed students by failed schools. An unacceptably large percentage of failures in scores of high schools across the Commonwealth demands a new approach to the MCAS debate. In instances of school failure rates above 40 percent, state policy should be to flunk the high schools instead of the children and offer a guarantee that individual MCAS results will not be used against them in any way. Denying diplomas to students from failing schools simply blames the victim and punishes the child. In the spring of 2002, 45 out of 348 Bay State high schools saw more than 45 percent of their sophomores score failing marks in the English or mathematics portion of the test. Close to 60 high schools had failure rates exceeding 40 percent of the class of 2004 and 81 exceeding 35 percent. Those are shocking numbers in a state where most parents would expect a test to produce more modest failure rates, say 10 percent at most. But the pictures is much worse than that. Overall, some 19 percent of the class of 2003 has yet to pass MCAS exams after several tries. Among those 12,000 students are 44 percent of our state’s African-American seniors and 50 percent of our Latino 12th graders. Not surprisingly, most of them come from the same urban high schools that have consistently reported high MCAS failure rates. What will happen to students from failing schools who are denied a diploma many were never given a fair chance to earn? They will have trouble gaining admission to college or getting a good job. They will be consigned to third-rate opportunities at best -- behind the eight ball in every aspect of education and employment. No one is trying to let our schools or students off the hook. As an important benchmark of educational progress and accountability for our schools, MCAS tests should continue to be given and aggregate scores reported. However, MCAS tests should be used to spur improvements rather than bring down sanctions on children from schools and school systems that have failed to adequately prepare them for the testes. Under the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, a process was put in place to allow the state to take over poorly performing schools as measured by MCAS results. That is good public policy driven by the logic that the state has an overwhelming interest to intervene in failing schools that have proved incapable of achieving higher MCAS pass rates. The same logic suggests that the school and not the students should be held accountable for high MCAS failure rates when they start approaching half the sophomore class. No one expects schools charged with educating our state’s poorest children to turn around overnight and produce chart-busting test results. But neither should we penalize students during the process of reforming those schools. There is much at stake in resolving the MCAS debate. A federal lawsuit currently making its way through the courts charges that the test discriminates against minority, disabled, bilingual, and vocational students. While the courts wrestle with that issue, we have a more immediate challenge: Turning around the schools that have failed the students. Unless and until that happens, imposing an MCAS graduation requirement in high schools where more than 40 percent fail the exam rates a failing grade in educational and social policy.

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