Vote to Award Diplomas Defies State Testing Policy

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While it doesn't amount to throwing tea into Boston Harbor, a decision by the Cambridge, Mass., school committee to grant diplomas to students who haven't passed state exams signals that dissent remains strong over high-stakes testing in the Bay State.

State education officials are not amused, and have said the law is clear: Beginning with the class of 2003, students must pass the English and math portions of the state assessment, or they won't get a diploma.

With a gubernatorial race looming in November, and public discontent over the exams persisting, the issue statewide is not likely to go away.

The 4-3 vote by the Cambridge school committee on April 23 followed a series of public meetings in which many local parents, teachers, and students passionately opposed requiring students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, to graduate.

The resolution by the school committee, as school boards are known in Massachusetts, argues that the state's 1993 education reform law allows for a variety of assessment instruments to determine if students should graduate. The resolution adds that the MCAS is not conducive to testing different learning styles.

Looking ahead to next year, the committee authorized the superintendent of the 7,300-student district to grant high school diplomas to "all students who meet the requirements for graduation regardless of her or his MCAS test scores."

The Cambridge district—located in the town that is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—joins the Hampshire Regional school committee to become the second school district to scrap the MCAS as a graduation requirement. The Hampshire school committee voted to do so last October.

Alan Price, a first-term Cambridge school committee member, acknowledged that some committee members were worried about reprisals from the state. Nonetheless, he proposed the resolution after growing frustrated with what he saw as heavy-handed interference in local affairs by David P. Driscoll, the state commissioner of education.

"The state commissioner was micromanaging some of the principals to the point where he was telling them not to follow school committee orders regarding MCAS, and I felt that was a pretty serious issue," Mr. Price said. He was referring to Mr. Driscoll's objection to Cambridge principals' telling parents in the past that they would provide alternative educational settings for students who chose to boycott the MCAS.

While the number of students refusing to take the exams has decreased, about 100 students from Cambridge alone didn't take the MCAS two years ago. ("Students Boycott Tests in Mass. to Protest Emphasis on Exams," April 19, 2000.)

"Our hope is that the resolution is written in a way that may be useful to other districts that are considering taking a stand," Mr. Price said.

Precarious Situation

Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for Mr. Driscoll, said there is nothing to debate.

"In order to receive a diploma and graduate from a Massachusetts public high school, students must meet all the local requirements and pass MCAS," he said.

The education department does not yet have a specific plan for responding to the renegade school committees.

Bobbie D'Alessandro, the superintendent of the Cambridge schools, acknowledged that the school committee's vote places her in a tight spot.

"It put me in a precarious situation, but I do want to have a conversation about these issues," she said. She supports the MCAS as a "diagnostic tool," but doesn't think it should be the state's only accountability measure. But, in the end, she said: "It's the state law. I have sent a letter to parents saying we will be taking the MCAS."

Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a former Cambridge school committee member, said there is an "enormous level of frustration and anger" with what he and others view as the state board of education's narrow interpretation of the 9-year-old education reform law. "Among the arguments being made is that the legislation never mandated a single, high-stakes test," Mr. Koocher said.

The next 10 months, Mr. Koocher believes, will bring a renewed focus on the testing situation. More than two dozen bills are pending in the state legislature that seek either to abolish the MCAS or change the graduation requirement.

How does he see the situation turning out? "My best guess is the solution will be a diplomatic one that will come in time," Mr. Koocher said, "and in a situation where everyone can save face."

Vol. 21, Issue 34, Page 3

Published in Print: May 8, 2002, as Vote to Award Diplomas Defies State Testing Policy
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