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A Bay State revolt bucks high-stakes tests

In a battle over fairness and accountability, some school districts say 'No' to tying diplomas to a test.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2003

As graduation looms and students rent gowns and order yearbooks, some in Massachusetts are also going to court.

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It's April, just two months shy of the state's first-ever denial of diplomas based on a standardized test, and opposition to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is reaching fever pitch. In a Minute Man-like revolt, entire school districts, from Cambridge to the Berkshire Mountains, are planning to defy the state, ignore the MCAS, and issue diplomas anyway. A few students have joined a class-action lawsuit against the state, and most districts have signed a resolution declaring that local school committees, and not a test, should determine who graduates.

The high-stakes tests have been contentious elsewhere, such as in Florida and California, but nowhere are critics more vocal than in Massachusetts, where grousing has turned to rebellion. "Other states are watching what happens here with great interest," says Jackie King, statewide coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, which opposes the MCAS.

As education reform gains momentum, the tests - used in nearly half of states - have grown more popular. They give diplomas meaning, say advocates, and they call attention to the needs of districts, schools, or students. In Massachusetts, points out Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a national organization that reviewed the MCAS, the test came with special funding "targeted at helping kids in danger of not passing."

But most of the test's opponents say it's not high standards they're against. Rather, it's the idea that a student could be punished for a school's failure - and that graduation could ride on one test.

Take Candido Molina who, for years, has had one goal: to be the first in his family to graduate from high school. Until two weeks ago, it seemed that goal - and, by extension, his dream of becoming a police officer - was out of reach. While the state has been touting the 90 percent of high school seniors who have passed the exam, Candido is among the 6,000 or so who haven't. Four tries resulted in an improved math score - up from 200 to 218 - but one that was still below the 220 needed for a diploma.

In a late reprieve, the state granted Candido a waiver. But his family maintains that without weeks of private tutoring, even that would have been out of reach. More important, they say, Candido was competent in his math classes.

"We watched the intersection of the Department of Education's requirement and Candido's real-life effort to graduate high school," says Howard Fain, Candido's guardian. For the boy to be denied a diploma despite completing such work, he adds, "would have been a tragedy."

But MCAS defenders point to the test's success in directing attention and funding to the worst-performing schools. Holding a student back, they argue, is less of a punishment then sending that student into the world unprepared.

"For the first time, we're saying performance really counts," says Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and part of the team that wrote the 1993 legislation that spawned the MCAS. The test "says we as adults owe young people adequate preparation to meet the challenges they'll face in employment or higher education."