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.

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

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."

Mr. Reville and others in the pro-MCAS camp also point to the latest numbers. With 19 percent of the class of '03 still trying to pass last fall, schools put forth a massive effort. Special classes and extra tutoring helped 9 percent more pass the December exam. And for students who haven't yet passed, there are other options. "The spirit is to say to kids, 'We're not giving up on you ..., but there are some doors that no one can open for you unless you acquire the knowledge and skills to open them yourselves," says Mr. Cohen of Achieve Inc.

Among school districts, the tiny Hampshire School Committee, in the western part of the state, was the first to take a stand. Cambridge and five other towns followed suit. In some cases, the number of students affected is so small the action seems mostly symbolic, but districts insist it's important.

"We felt the MCAS graduation requirement was educationally unsound," says David Kotz, a University of Massachusetts economics professor and North-ampton School Committee member. He ticks off a list of reasons: It discriminates against special-ed students, low-income students, and students of color - all of whom have lower passing rates; it pressures schools to focus on English and math and "teach to the test." "Of course," he adds, "it's a step further to defy the state Board of Education."

Between when Northampton began debating a resolution and when it finally adopted it last month, the number of local students affected - those who haven't passed the MCAS or received a waiver, but who are on track to complete graduation requirements - dropped from 20 percent of the class to one or two students. Still, Mr. Kotz says, "the harm this graduation requirement would do to some students was something we felt we really needed to defend them against."

The state, predictably, isn't happy. If communities issue diplomas to students who failed the MCAS, says Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi Perlman, "they'll be breaking the law." The state could withhold funding, or refer them to the attorney general's office. "If students are given diplomas that they didn't earn, then those will be invalid diplomas," says Ms. Perlman, adding that the state intends to verify them this summer.

Most likely, the standoff will be resolved with the class-action lawsuit, since few towns would defy a ruling by the state's top court. A superior-court ruling is expected any day, though either side will likely appeal. Lawyers for the students are basing arguments on their interpretation of the 1993 law that created the MCAS. "It called for multiple assessments of students to determine if they had competency," says Nadine Cohen, one of the lawyers arguing the case. "It did not require one high-stakes test."

In the meantime, Candido's family is just happy he'll be walking across the stage this June, however he got there. "I have not seen him that relaxed in a long time," says Mr. Fain. "This meant everything to him, this degree."

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