As school starts this year, Massachusetts teachers have more to worry about than lesson plans and seating charts. This year, the MCAS counts.
If 10th-graders don't pass a key standardized test - the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System - by the time they reach the end of 12th grade, they don't graduate.
To help the 30,000 sophomores expected to fail on their first try, state officials are planning to assemble an army of volunteers to tutor these students. The plan would put Massachusetts in the forefront of efforts to involve the larger community in education reform, but it also is provoking hot debate - echoed across the nation - over who is qualified to teach.
In these times of teacher shortages, that question is paramount. In addition to relying on a greater number of volunteers, some school districts have been easing the requirements for teacher certification, trying to induce professionals in other fields to switch to education, and drawing on less-qualified candidates. New York, for instance, hired almost 600 uncertified teachers last year and is currently trying to speed up its certification process.
"We are raising standards for students while, at the same time, lowering standards for the people teaching them," says Stephen Gorrie, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "As student standards get higher, we should be getting more-qualified teachers in the classroom."
The Massachusetts plan for a volunteer corps is, at this point, more rhetoric than reality. Key questions remain - such as how volunteers will be screened and who will train them. President Clinton's Americorps program includes volunteers who work in schools, but it doesn't approach in scale the tutoring endeavor planned for Massachusetts.
Even so, the concept, as outlined last week by Lt. Gov. Jane Swift (R), is winning some praise.
"It's an interesting and appealing idea," says Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. "It reminds me of barn-raisings in the old days, when neighbors got together to help each other out. It may turn out that raising test scores is the modern-day equivalent of raising barns."
For the growing number of states that are insisting students pass a standardized test to graduate, time is growing short and the pressure more intense. In Massachusetts, for example, 53 percent of 10th-graders who took the sample MCAS last year failed the math portion and 32 percent failed the English portion.
Too much too soon?
As states look for new and creative ways to help their students pass these tests, some experts are beginning to ask whether such high-stakes testing is too much too soon.
"States across the country are beginning to really think critically about high-stakes testing, and a lot of them are taking a second look at what they're creating," says David Kysilco of the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va.
In a report due out in October, the association will assess what individual states are doing to make sure their students graduate - and whether they're going too far.
Mr. Kysilco sees the merits of holding both students and teachers to high standards, but says that reaching that goal will be a long process. States should not adopt ill-devised plans because of pressure to raise scores immediately.
Under the Massachusetts citizen-tutor plan, "there is no way to ensure kids will get the quality help they need," he cautions. "Teaching is definitely a profession that takes a lot of skill,
especially when it comes to high-stakes tests like the MCAS."
Many believe plans like this are smokescreens that hide the larger problems of low teachers' salaries, overcrowded classrooms, disruptive students, and sagging school buildings.
"While it may be good for students to have role models from the community, that's not going to help with smaller class sizes or early childhood education," says Bob Duffy with the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Further, he says, "most school districts have a hard time finding volunteers to hand out milk in the cafeteria, let alone to provide quality remedial education."
But school districts committed to standardized tests are desperately trying to avoid large failure rates. More plans like the one in Massachusetts are certainly coming, educators predict.
"We are in the early days of high-stakes testing, and I'm sure we will see a lot of states trying to be inventive about how to deal with kids who run afoul," says Dr. Finn. "Some might turn to churches for help; others might turn to parents."
That does not mean relieving teachers of their responsibilities nor blaming them when students fail. Indeed, teachers have the most difficult job of all, Mr. Gorrie says. "They should be provided with the resources to do the job properly."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society