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Published in Print: November 6, 2002, as Boston Rallies to Help Students Pass Tests

Boston Rallies to Help Students Pass Tests

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A coalition of community, religious, and education advocacy groups has responded to a call from Boston's mayor to help high school seniors pass the state's high-stakes graduation exam.

The campaign begins as 1,600 Boston seniors still have not passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests in mathematics and English. The class of 2003 is the first class that must pass the exams to graduate.

In many ways, the effort is unprecedented in the city because it unites groups like the Boston Teachers Union, which are critical of the MCAS graduation requirement, with others that back the mandate.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino acknowledged the diverse nature of the groups in the campaign as he joined many of them at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in the city's Roxbury section for an Oct. 23 press conference to kick off the effort.

"We don't always agree on every issue, but we are always united on one front: our children," he declared. "And we're committed to working together to support our students so that they can be assured of a bright future. Right now, access to that bright future is achieved by passing the state-mandated MCAS test."

The effort is aimed at raising awareness among parents that their children need to pass the MCAS to graduate, and at giving students extra help leading up to an MCAS retest next month. While seniors have two more chances to pass the exam, they must pass the December test if they are to graduate with their class.

Volunteers will organize community meetings, tutor students, call parents, and, in some cases, go to the homes of students who have not yet passed. Edward Doherty, the president of the 7,000-member Boston Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said that while the union believes the MCAS is flawed policy, he supports the new effort.

"Until the law is changed," he said, "these kids will be at a serious disadvantage if they don't pass this test."

In another of many critiques lobbed at the state test, a recent report contends that the exam will be a barrier to college acceptance for students. The report came from two groups that have called for an end to the MCAS graduation requirement: the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, an advocacy group in the state, and the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a national watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass.

The report says, for example, that at Boston's Jeremiah E. Burke High School, where all of the students in the past two graduating classes were accepted into postsecondary institutions, 40 percent of the current senior class still had not passed the MCAS as of last spring, when the exam was last given.

Heeding the Call

The community effort to help students was launched about a month after a lawsuit was filed in federal court by lawyers representing students from the cities of Holyoke, Northhampton, and Springfield who have failed the exam. The suit argues that state education officials exceeded their authority in 2000 when they required students to pass the MCAS in order to graduate, and that the assessment has a disparate impact on minority students. ("Massachusetts Sued Over Graduation Tests," Oct. 2, 2002.)

And late last week, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees was expected to pass a resolution that calls for letting local school boards grant diplomas to students who have failed the MCAS but who meet district graduation requirements. The resolution is mainly symbolic, though, and would have no legal standing.

For Gibran Rivera, the executive director of the Massachusetts Education Initiative for Latino Students, which works to improve Hispanic educational achievement, the campaign to help students get over the MCAS hump is the start of a long-term partnership between educators and community groups.

"The powerful thing about this is, even people who don't agree with the MCAS recognize it's something that is going to happen, and we can do something about it now," Mr. Rivera said. "We accepted the call [of the mayor] understanding it as a door opening for a longer-term relationship. We are doing this because there is an immediate crisis and need."

Vol. 22, Issue 10, Page 3

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