BOSTON — For students in Massachusetts, MCAS can be a four-letter word. It's the state's high school exit exam, and the rule is simple: If you don't pass it, you don't get a diploma.
But the mayor of New Bedford, Scott Lang, is threatening to disobey that policy by granting diplomas to students June 15, even if they fail the standardized test. In so doing, he's testing the state's will to withhold district funds for breaking regulations. And he's reviving a debate over education reform that's simmering in other states, too.
Last week, California's supreme court reinstated its graduation requirement, which had been invalidated by a lower court just a few weeks earlier. And an Arizona judge this month refused to suspend that state's exit exam for this year's graduating class, the first to be affected by the requirement.
Fueling the legal fights is a philosophical debate about how best to prepare students for the challenges of college and work. For supporters, the tests promote a rigorous academic experience and they provide accountability to teachers and schools. They also act as a guarantee, experts say, of competency.
"A diploma is about effort and achievement, not just attendance," says James Peyser, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education. He says passing rates are high - about 94 percent statewide last year, according to the state Department of Education - with students getting multiple opportunities to pass the exam. He wants the state to raise the minimum score needed to pass the test.
But others say that such high-stakes tests intimidate some students, leading them to drop out of school. In New Bedford, for example, the percentage of students passing the MCAS is in line with the statewide rate, but its dropout rate is three times higher than the state average.
Detractors like Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, sees such exams as punitive. The Board of Education "think[s] that unless you instill the fear of God in students you won't have their attention," he says. "The culture is regulate and punish, regulate and punish."
Mayor Lang wants the schools to issue two types of diplomas: one for those who pass the state test, called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, and an alternative for those who don't. But his effort may be in vain because the local superintendent has said he will not sign off on such diplomas.
But experts say the battles here and elsewhere could cause districts to improve access to options for proof of competency beyond a single test score. These could include incorporating grades from core classes or using portfolios to demonstrate knowledge. The battles, they say, could also help shift attention to remedial courses and tutoring to help slower students make progress.
The MCAS, which uses multiple-choice and open-ended questions to test proficiency in math and English, is administered to all Massachusetts high school sophomores.
While states have used competency exams for decades, says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in Washington, many US schools have not traditionally withheld diplomas based on the results of exit exams until the 1990s.
Today, 26 states either require students to pass a standards test or have plans to put such requirements in place. By the year 2012, more than 70 percent of US public school students will live in states that require exit exams, according to CEP.
New Bedford joins a handful of other state communities, such as Cambridge and Falmouth, that have also attempted to grant alternative diplomas after the law went into effect for the class of 2003. But those towns backed down once the state threatened to withhold funding.
Criticism of such tests has most often occurred in wealthier communities, where parents tend to have faith in their schools and see exit exams as a distracting hurdle, says Mr. Jennings. "There is not as much opposition in poorer communities, because, generally, poor parents think schools aren't doing well enough and [see exit exams] as a way to improve that," he says.
In New Bedford, a working-class community, the school committee unanimously supported the mayor's resolution. Mr. Lang has said his protest serves to point out that his schools do not have adequate funding for remedial classes to help slower students pass the exam.
"Without a diploma you cannot go to college, you can't do any continuing studies," says state representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a Democrat who filed legislation to legalize the alternative diplomas that New Bedford seeks to grant. "It creates a disadvantage for you throughout your life, even though you went through 13 years of school, passed all the courses, but happened not to pass one test."
The movement could have a wider impact if the mayor persuades the state to widen the alternative process, says Jennings. That is something Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, would like to see. "We believe that there should be more than just the MCAS considered," he says.
Like many other states, Massachusetts has an appeals process in place, but it is not widely used. Nationwide, less than 1 percent of students use alternate routes to get diplomas.
In recent years, at least seven states have moved to give students who don't pass their exit exams more choices. In Arizona, students who earn high notes in core competencies can raise their standardized test score by up to 25 percent.
Washington state has developed a multitiered approach for alternatives. Students there can substitute their GPAs, portfolios, or SAT, ACT, or PSAT scores. CEP president Jennings says it could become a model.
Some 40 percent of Washington 10th- graders might have failed this year's test, but only a fraction of students can use those waivers, says Charles Hasse, head of the Washington Education Association. "They are not really, in a meaningful way, providing alternatives," he says.
His union's surveys show that 3 out of 4 Washington teachers disapprove of using the exit exam as a graduation requirement, he adds.
For Mr. Peyser of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Lang's plan "may make people feel better on graduation day, but they are kidding themselves if they think [those] diplomas will ensure lives that include meaningful opportunities."