Fail the test, forget the diploma

For the first time, Massachusetts high school seniors must pass a state exam to earn a diploma. As educators and volunteers strive to help thousands who have not yet passed, they worry about those who may be left behind.

Tiara Smith sighs and taps her pencil as she stares at the packet of math problems lying on her desk.

She's only halfway through a week of testing, and she knows how much is riding on her answers. A member of Boston's class of 2003, Tiara is among the first group of high-schoolers who won't receive diplomas unless they pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, or MCAS.

Tiara, a special-education student, has already failed the MCAS twice. No allowances are made for students in her situation, but the test is untimed, and there are no limits on retaking it. Up until a year ago, Tiara's overall passing grades and regular attendance in school would have sufficed to merit a diploma. Not any longer.

Now, higher standards are designed to ensure that every diploma granted means that the holder has attained the same minimum set of skills. State education officials have taken a hard line against any changes that might water down these standards.

More than a dozen states have instituted exit exams in the past decade, but now the spotlight turns to Massachusetts as it scurries to help students pass - and braces to face bitterly disappointed families whose children fall short of the requirement.

No exceptions are made for special- education or bilingual students, who account for half of the 1,600 Boston students yet to pass. Testing, which has been phased in over the past several years, starts in sophomore year, and students must receive a score of at least 220 out of a possible 280 in both math and English in order to pass.

For Tiara, this retest in early December is her last chance to graduate with her class. For weeks, she has packed in two extra periods of English and math every day. She attended evening prep classes at a neighborhood church and linked up with a college student for one-on-one tutoring.

Those opportunities were part of an unprecedented citywide push to help seniors in danger of not graduating in June if they fail at least one part of the MCAS again. Community leaders put aside arguments about the merits of high-stakes testing and focused on helping those at the bottom of Boston's high schools.

"We're on a search-and-save mission," says Samuel Acevedo, director of the church-based Higher Education Resource Center (HERC) in Boston, where Tiara sought tutoring. "It's a race against time."

Despite the outreach and many students' hard work, significant numbers will likely discover they have failed for a third or fourth time when results are mailed in February. And with state budget cuts looming, the MCAS tutoring program may not be available to next year's class. That leaves educators concerned about what will happen to the students left behind.

From the first week of school in September, Tiara was determined to be among those receiving a diploma on time at Madison Park Technical-Vocational High School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. Passing the MCAS test, she wrote in an English class journal, was her top goal for the year, ahead of getting good grades and finishing her senior project. The test even outranked the importance of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team making the playoffs and keeping her favorite player, Allen Iverson.

She understood that passing the test wouldn't be easy. A learning disability places Tiara among the 86 percent of Boston's special-education students who have not yet passed. And limited use of one arm makes writing difficult.

On her second attempt last spring, Tiara scored a 212 and 210. "There was mad stuff on that test," Tiara says. "I was like, huh?"

But with her eye on life after graduation, Tiara knows she needs to pass the test to succeed. Enrolled in the school's computer-technology vocational program, Tiara talks about college or perhaps computer or secretarial work. "A diploma gets you jobs," she says.

So Tiara persuaded a friend to sign up with her for an MCAS prep course at the Congregacion Leon de Juda church near her home. There, HERC matched Tiara up with Boston College sophomore Kathryn Jefferis for mentoring. At their first meeting, Tiara agreed to put aside at least 20 minutes a night for MCAS preparation, and Kathryn promised to take Tiara out for dinner and a movie if she passed.

Hoping for outside intervention

Twelve hours after their school day began, Tiara and four other high school seniors sit around a folding table, reviewing a reading-comprehension passage as the sounds of a women's prayer group singing in Spanish float down the hall.

Tiara yawns and bites a nail as she reads the passage in her lap, stopping to get a piece of gum from her friend. She doesn't contribute to the conversation until the students start discussing a sample essay topic: Is the MCAS fair?

Tiara gives the first response: "No, it's not fair. You can have all A's, do your senior project, do everything you have to do, and it's like you're going to school for nothing."

She is equally outspoken about the test at school and at home. Each morning, she scans the newspaper for stories about MCAS legal challenges. Eight students who failed the test sued the state in September, alleging that state education officials lacked the authority to create graduation requirements and that the test is discriminatory. A federal judge declined to hear the case, but the students' lawyers may refile in state court.

In English class, Tiara dreamed out loud about hiring famed O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran to take the case. At home, she discussed the test so much that her sister, also a student at Madison Park, asked her to stop.

"She is so worked up, it was almost all-consuming," says her English teacher, Andrea Rinella, who has taught Tiara for three years.

Communities unite behind students

The city didn't make it easy for students to forget about the test. Education, civic, religious, and business leaders launched a massive outreach and tutoring campaign aimed at the lowest-performing students.

Ministers preached about the test from their pulpits. Volunteers phoned and visited students' homes. Companies offered student employees paid release time from after-school jobs. Radio stations broadcast reminders in between hip-hop songs.

"The number and kinds of agencies and government efforts to get involved is truly unprecedented," says Paul Revelle, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Education Research and Policy at MassInc. "Whether it's enough to get everyone over the bar remains to be seen."

Not every student took advantage of all the help, and a few weeks of prep courses may not have been enough for those who did. "That's like curing malnutrition with vitamins," says Pedro Antonio Noguera, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education who has advised Massachusetts schools. "You need regular meals and, in this case, regular exposure to the material."

Madison Park Headmaster Charles McAfee admits such efforts can't plug all the gaps - particularly among students who don't show up at school regularly.

Many who haven't yet passed wouldn't graduate anyway due to chronic absenteeism, Mr. McAfee says. About a quarter hadn't even sat through an entire MCAS exam prior to the December retest. "We're meeting them halfway. The kids have to meet us halfway," McAfee says.

But making that extra effort wasn't easy for Tiara. Always a bit grouchy during her first- period English class, Tiara came in more tired than usual and missed homework more often, Ms. Rinella says. As the test came closer, she grew more sullen in class. Her job delivering meals to AIDs patients at a public housing development caused her to miss a one-on-one session with Kathryn, her Boston College mentor. That left only one meeting for them to actually review MCAS questions.

Another failure could be devastating

On the first morning of testing, Tiara arrives at her English classroom, wearing her black coat as usual. In the period before the test begins, Rinella plays a Celtic Christmas album to keep Tiara and her classmates calm. Overhead, Santa and snowman decorations hang from the ceiling.

Tiara has said she feels confident about the English composition component of the test. As in past exams, the essay asks students to write about a book, and Rinella reminded students well before the test to have a book and author in mind. Tiara fills three pages with an essay on "The Contender," a book about a boxer who gets sidetracked by hanging out with the wrong crowd.

The math portions of the exam prove more difficult. According to Rinella's account, Tiara sighs and puts her head down on the table at times, working on the test well into the afternoon.

By week's end, Tiara tells Rinella that she probably did better than last time. She also excitedly tells her teacher about a new CD release by her favorite rap singer, Nas.

Later, Rinella says she is happy Tiara could relax a little after the test, but she also worries about what will happen if her student fails again. "She will be devastated, and the thought of taking it again will overwhelm her," Rinella says.

Tiara says she's glad the test is over and that all the tutoring in math and English did help. "Hopefully, I passed so I won't have to take it again."

Any of the 12,000 seniors around Massachusetts who haven't passed the MCAS can take the test again in the spring, but the results will not be available until months after graduation.

School districts can file appeals for those students who fail the MCAS test but would otherwise qualify for a diploma. However, a successful appeal requires higher grades and grade-level appropriate work - probably too high a barrier for special-education students such as Tiara.

Boston school superintendent Thomas Payzant has suggested starting with a lower passing score of 216 this year and gradually raising it to 220 in the third year.

Without a successful appeal or a lower threshold, those who missed the 220 mark again in December will receive only a "certificate of completion." Some Massachusetts school districts have announced plans to offer a "local diploma" - a move state officials have called illegal.

Even without a diploma, though, students might be accepted at a community college. Several New England colleges, including the University of New Hampshire and Western Connecticut State University, have said they will accept local diplomas. But not having a state-certified diploma may still make qualifying for financial aid more difficult.

Rinella says she goes back and forth about the diploma requirements. "Some kids like Tiara who have tried so hard and not been able to pass, you'd like to see them get a diploma," she says. "But a lot of these kids have not taken the grade-level courses that are required, and some kids don't come to class. Those are the ones you question. Do you want to give them a diploma?"

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