Bay State’s Exam Has Left Its Mark

By John Gehring — November 21, 2001 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 11 min read
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Corrected: Boston’s latest 10th-grade results from the MCAS should read: “Sixty-one percent of the students in that grade passed the English exam given last spring, up from 44 percent in 2000. Fifty-three percent passed the mathematics test, compared with 34 percent last year.”

The release of state testing data would hardly seem the kind of event to fire up a group of teenagers. Tell that to the 900 or so high school students who have filled the auditorium at Brockton High School here with a hyped-up energy worthy of a big-game pep rally.

Television cameras angle for close-ups. On stage, state education officials, Brockton’s mayor, and other dignitaries take turns praising juniors at the 4,200-student high school as the officials release the latest results from the state assessment. They draw cheers from a class of students who are on the hot seat in Massachusetts’ 8-year-old push to improve its schools.

More than ever, the details of the data unveiled here early this month matter big-time for these 11th graders and their peers across the state. Students in the class of 2003 are the first who must pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, in English language arts and mathematics in order to graduate.

Like students in almost every school district around the state, those at Brockton High made strong gains on the exams given last spring, when members of the class of ’03 were in 10th grade. Of the 942 students enrolled in the Brockton High sophomore class last school year, 51 percent passed both the English and math exams on their first attempt, up from 26 percent in 2000.

“You typify the type of success we have seen across the state,” state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll told the students and staff at Brockton, an ethnically diverse school where some 70 different languages are spoken.

Statewide, 73 percent of all 10th graders who took both the English language arts and math tests last spring passed and will be able to graduate on time if they also meet local academic requirements. That’s up from 51 percent of 10th grade students who passed both tests on their first attempt in 2000. Students who fail have four more chances to pass a shortened version of the test.

The improvements on the MCAS are major news in Massachusetts, which has lived up to its history of protest in the battle over the controversial assessment. Last fall, the state’s largest teachers’ union ran a $600,000 advertising campaign blasting the exams it calls “flawed and unfair.” Students from about a dozen schools boycotted the tests last spring.

Plaudits and Defiance

And educators and policymakers in other states are watching the continuing debate for clues to the ultimate fate of state initiatives that use such high-stakes testing to drive improvement in precollegiate education.

Some 40 bills that call for changes in the MCAS— including several that would eliminate the tests as a graduation requirement— are pending in the Massachusetts legislature.

Meanwhile, the Hampshire regional school committee in Westhampton, Mass., has voted unanimously to grant diplomas to students who fail the MCAS but meet local performance standards. The state education department quickly fired off a response, calling the move illegal under state law. The school committee continues to dispute that position.

The exams, given each year to students in grades 3-10 in subjects such as English, math, science, history, and social studies, grew out of the state’s 1993 education reform law that set up a new system for school finance, established a framework for standardizing the curriculum, and gave the state board of education the job of setting competency standards for students.

Massachusetts’ approach in aligning standards with an accountability exam received an endorsement just days before this year’s MCAS results were released. Achieve, a national organization formed by governors and business leaders who advocate standards-based education policies, issued a report calling Massachusetts’ system of academic standards and tests a national model. (“Mass. School Policies Praised as Test Scores Rise,” Oct. 24, 2001.)

But Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, says influential business and political leaders with an interest in seeing the exams embraced have been successful in dominating the MCAS debate.

“There is a whole industry that has grown up around ‘MCAS Inc.,’ and that has added to the rhetoric,” Mr. Koocher said. “One of the casualties in the MCAS debate has been truth and accuracy.”

Mr. Koocher, like many critics who would prefer that schools use multiple assessments rather than a single exam to determine whether a student will graduate, still acknowledges the “wake-up-call value” of the MCAS. “There is no question the MCAS has everybody’s attention,” he said.

Brockton’s Way

As Brockton High’s self-described “empress of the MCAS,” the school’s associate principal for curriculum and instruction, Susan Szachowicz, oversees preparation for the exams at the school. She says that Brockton High instructors have used detailed analyses of MCAS data to tweak classroom teaching.

An enthusiastic woman with a booming voice who has spent 27 years at the school, Ms. Szachowicz, along with her staff, focused on individual questions from the MCAS to see what types of questions students were getting wrong.

When teachers learned that students were having a hard time with the open-response writing items on the English exams, they looked for flaws in their system and concluded that individual teachers across the different subjects could do more to promote writing.

The challenge, Ms. Szachowicz said, was to motivate all 370 teachers, from art instructors to biology teachers, to pay more attention to students’ writing skills. All academic departments were asked to focus on writing, and all teachers received training in what to look for in students’ written work.

That intense focus apparently paid off. Brockton High scored above the state average on open-response writing questions in the latest series of exams. “We feel we got the whole school committed to writing,” Ms. Szachowicz said.While she agrees with some of the criticisms leveled at the MCAS, Ms. Szachowicz said the exams have been an important catalyst for raising expectations in urban districts.

“Low expectation for urban kids are insidious,” she said. “It’s not about just the MCAS; it’s about raising academic standards for all students.”

Jeannie Elie, Brockton High’s junior- class president, said students paid more attention to the exams this time around. “We did work harder,” she said. “I had a lot of friends who didn’t take it seriously before because it wasn’t a graduation requirement.”

Classmate Ernest Offley, however, believes too much time and attention are spent on the MCAS at the expense of other academic material. “Things were being skipped over that we need to know [because] it wasn’t on the test,” he said. “We were pushed into things that were on the test.”

While state education officials say that raising minority achievement and closing the gap between urban and suburban districts remain serious challenges, they lauded the test-score gains made by African-American and Hispanic students in 2001. Forty-two percent of black 10th graders passed both the English and math exams, up from 21 percent last year. Thirty-seven percent of Hispanic 10th graders passed those exams, up from 19 percent.

But according to an analysis of the MCAS by researchers for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 63 percent of African-American and 71 percent of Latino 10th graders in the state remain at risk of not earning a diploma because they haven’t passed the MCAS.

Gary Orfield, the Civil Rights Project’s co-director, said that data released by state officials ignores the substantial number minority students in the 10th grade who skip the test or refuse to take it. Even before the MCAS, he said, black and Latino students were two to three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to drop out before graduating from high school a situation that he contends could worsen because of the MCAS.

“In today’s economy, a high school diploma is the minimal requirement needed to learn a livable wage,” Mr. Orfield said. “Any policy that threatens to withhold high school diplomas from most minority students in the state represents a major civil rights crisis.”

Boston’s Hope

In Boston, Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Payzant wants to talk about staying focused. The gospel he’s preaching here today in his seventh-floor office overlooking the old State House isn’t flashy or filled with soaring claims of immediate salvation for the state’s largest district.

But it’s an unwavering message that has defined his tenure at the helm of the 63,000-student district for the past six years.

“The biggest challenge is staying focused on teaching and learning, and following through with a clear sense of what is most important to do, when the norm is often to try something for a year and then say, ‘New year, new approach,’” said Mr. Payzant, a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration.

Boston’s public schools, where most students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, are beginning a second phase of improvement efforts that began in 1996. The district’s standards-based approach to raising performance, with its focus on literacy and mathematics, has produced consistent improvements.

Graduates of the Boston school system are attending college or taking part in postsecondary training at record-high numbers, according to an Oct. 29 report from the Boston Private Industry Council. Sixty-nine percent of students in the class of 2000 enrolled in two- or four-year colleges or engaged in some sort of postsecondary training.

And Boston’s latest 10th grade results from the MCAS also reflect improvements. Thirty percent of the students in that grade passed the English exam given last spring, up from 22 percent in 2000. Twenty five percent passed the math test, compared with 12 percent last year.

While the numbers are not astounding, Mr. Payzant said he doesn’t expect results to come overnight.

“As an urban district, there is a big gap here between where students are and where they need to be,” he said. “The results exceeded my expectations, and really reinforced the commitment to rigorous standards and the investment and support for teachers.”

Roxbury’s Turnaround

Located in a drab warehouse district in Boston’s Roxbury section, Samuel W. Mason Elementary School is the unassuming home of one of the state’s education success stories.

Once slated to close because of poor performance and a dwindling student population, the school has rebounded in part by using a school-based management approach that focuses on aligning teachers’ professional development with student-achievement goals. All teachers in the school are required to complete personal professional-development plans. Lead teachers in each subject help their colleagues incorporate effective practices into the classroom.

Ask teachers at Mason Elementary about the MCAS, and they insist that the standards-based reforms ushered in by the state eight years ago are about much more than the high-stakes test. Curriculum is now consistent across the district, they say, so students who transfer from one school to another are still learning from the same textbooks.

While some teachers complain that the seemingly ever-present exams force them to tailor too much of their instruction toward MCAS preparation, Mason’s math facilitator, Heather Hoffman, has a different perspective. “You’re teaching to the test,” she said, “but it’s really teaching standards kids need to know.”

This year’s MCAS results at Mason improved dramatically. In 2001, not a single 4th grade student out of the 30 who took the mathematics exam failed. Last year, 33 percent failed it. Only one student failed the English test, compared with a 15 percent failure rate last year.

Some 5 miles away, about 12 teachers at Brighton High School huddle around a wooden table covered with papers. Audrey Friedman, an assistant professor of teacher education at Boston College, leads them in an animated discussion of students’ writing.

The goal is to break down the students’ work into parts, closely analyzing what the writers have done well and what they need to do to improve. The teachers debate what the students’ writing would likely score on the open-response section of the MCAS English exam.

Students’ work is graded on a scale of 0 to 4. “I feel like it’s a real solid 2,” one teacher says of one piece of writing. “I don’t think the conclusion adds anything at all. I gave it barely a 2,” says another.

‘The Kids Can Do It’

Ms. Friedman says this type of weekly session helps staff members use the school’s own writing framework along with feedback from the MCAS, to help students improve their writing. “The kids can do it,” she said, “they just need the strategies.”

For the past five years, Ms. Friedman has been the literacy consultant at Brighton High. A former Philadelphia high school teacher, she understands the challenge of balancing the demands of teaching state standards without shackling creative teachers.

While there is a danger in letting instruction be driven by a single exam that doesn’t test all of what teachers would like students to appreciate and analyze, she said, a standardized curriculum aligned closely with state tests has helped students and teachers focus in a way they haven’t before.

“We are starting to see real changes in the students because of the focus on standards,” Ms. Friedman said. “Standards have gotten people to sit up and take notice.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bay State’s Exam Has Left Its Mark


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