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Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as High Scores on Mass. Tests Will Lead to Help With Tuition

High Scores on Mass. Tests Will Lead to Help With Tuition

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Massachusetts high school students now have one more reason to study for the state’s high school exams: They’ll get free tuition at state universities if they score high enough.

The state board of higher education voted last month to create scholarships for graduates who score in the top 25 percent in their school districts on the reading and mathematics sections of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.

Under the plan, which will benefit the class of 2005, those in their districts’ top quartiles will receive the scholarships if their scores are in the “advanced” category in at least one of those subjects and are “proficient” or above in the other. About 13,000 students will be eligible.

“This rewards students who are high achievers and do well on our MCAS tests,” said Shawn K. Feddeman, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mitt Romney.

Students already must pass the reading and math sections of the MCAS to earn a diploma.

The scholarship plan adopted by the higher education board on Oct. 19 includes minor changes to the plan presented by the governor in his State of the State Address earlier this year.

Diversity Debate

In unveiling the scholarship plan, Mr. Romney, a Republican, lauded Linette Heredia, a native Spanish-speaker from Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Mass., who earned a perfect score on the English version of the MCAS. “I want our best and brightest to stay right here in Massachusetts—students like Linette,” he said.

His original plan would have given the tuition aid to every student who scored in the top quartile, and given another $2,000 to help cover the other college costs of students in the top 10 percent statewide. ("Struggling Districts Could Gain Under Plan," Jan. 28, 2004.)

Instead, the legislature passed a plan to reward the top 25 percent of scorers in each school district. Mr. Romney rejected that plan.

“That was really watering down the merit part of it,” said Ms. Feddeman.

Last month, the higher education board used its authority over tuition rates to establish the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program. The board modified the legislature’s plan by requiring all recipients to reach the advanced level on one exam and at least the proficient level on the other.

The final plan is a good compromise between the governor’s desire to provide merit-based scholarships and criticisms that the original plan wouldn’t aid those who need the most help paying for higher education, said S. Paul Reville, the executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and a former member of the state board of education.

But the compromise doesn’t go far enough to satisfy some civil rights activists.

Under Gov. Romney’s plan, an estimated 34 percent of Asian-American students and 28 percent of white students would have won scholarships, said Donald E. Heller, an associate professor of education policy studies and a senior research scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park whose research on the topic is published by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. By contrast, only 5 percent of African-American students and 4 percent of Hispanic students would have qualified, he said.

The program adopted by the higher education board will produce percentages “pretty close” to those, he predicted.

Ultimately, said Ms. Feddeman, the governor’s spokeswoman, the final compromise rewards students who succeed on the MCAS—Mr. Romney’s main goal.

“The state invests a significant amount of dollars in need-based aid,” she said. “This does not replace that. It complements it.”

Incentive or Not?

Because students are required to pass the reading and math sections of the MCAS to graduate, some observers say it’s unlikely that the new scholarship program will motivate all students to take the tests more seriously.

But there is another reason, they say, that students might be lukewarm about the promise of tuition aid: Because of the state’s university-fee structure, the scholarships may not be worth enough money to get their attention.

For example, the average tuition in the University of Massachusetts system is $1,575. At the Amherst campus, however, students pay another $7,400 in fees and $6,200 for room and board.

Grants for such a small percentage of the overall costs—about 25 percent—probably aren’t enough to substantially help low-income students pay for college, Mr. Heller said. “The bottom line is, it’s going to have very little impact on students’ performance on the MCAS,” said Mr. Heller.

But for a needy student trying to scrape together money for college, the scholarship might be sufficient motivation to study for the MCAS, Mr. Reville countered.

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Page 26

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