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Student Achievement

Mass. Governor Calls for MCAS Tutoring Grants

By John Gehring — September 12, 2001 4 min read
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Massachusetts’ acting governor wants to give high school seniors who are in danger of failing the state’s accountability exams cash grants to help pay for tutoring if they lack access to remedial programs at their schools.

Jane M. Swift announced the proposal Aug. 30 during the state’s second “state of education” address before some 400 superintendents, principals, teachers, and public officials at a high school in Quincy, Mass.

Starting with the class of 2003, students must pass the English and mathematics sections of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which is given each year to 4th, 8th, and 10th graders, in order to graduate. Students have five chances to pass the test.

The MCAS has been the focus of continuing and often fierce debate. The largest Massachusetts teachers’ union ran a $600,000 advertising campaign last fall attacking the test as “flawed and unfair,” and some teachers and students have boycotted the exam.

While praising the state’s education improvement efforts—equalizing education funding among districts and raising expectations for low-income students—Gov. Swift said that more than half the state’s 8th graders are reading below grade level, and that achievement gaps between different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups persist.

In an effort to help students pass the MCAS, she said she would propose legislation to provide individual grants of up to $1,000 for the purchase of “educational support services.” Starting with this year’s junior class, the “Extra Help Guarantee” could be used by any first-semester senior who has not passed the MCAS and does not have access to tutoring services at school.

“I want to speak directly to the students and families of the class of 2003,” said Ms. Swift, who became the acting governor in April after a fellow Republican, Gov. Paul Cellucci, was named ambassador to Canada. “You may be anxious about the test results coming in October, but I want you to know ... I am committed to your success. ... And I’m putting in place a fair system that provides every possible option and opportunity for you to achieve your high school diploma.”

Since 1999, the state education department has provided $80 million to schools for programs and tutoring that help students who are in danger of failing the MCAS. But not all districts offer MCAS remedial support. It is the students in those districts that Ms. Swift hopes to reach with her new proposal, which comes as the Massachusetts legislature is running two months late in producing a final state budget.

In her speech, Ms. Swift directed the education department to release $10 million that has been held up by the stalled budget so that after-school programs and other tutoring services for the MCAS could begin this school year.

Mixed Reactions

Forty bills calling for changes in the MCAS, including several that would eliminate the exam-based graduation requirement, are pending in the legislature.

Ms. Swift’s proposal drew immediate criticism from teachers’ union leaders.

“I was not overly enthused,” said Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a 90,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. Mr. Gorrie said that he had hoped to hear the acting governor discuss class-size reduction, improvements in after-school programs, and an expansion of early-childhood education.

“I see this proposal as a gimmick and not a serious plan,” he said. “It appears success is being determined by MCAS scores alone.”

Last year, while she was lieutenant governor, Ms. Swift announced a drive to recruit 20,000 volunteer tutors to help struggling students with MCAS preparation. While that plan stalled, the education department still has made providing tutoring services for students a high priority and has been successful in attracting tutors, according to Alan Safrin, the department’s senior associate commissioner for student achievement.

The department recently began a major public-information campaign to attract tutors by advertising on billboards and posting signs on buses and in subways. Even before the push, Mr. Safrin said, about 100 potential tutors volunteered their services each month.

William Guenther, the president of Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that works to improve student achievement in the public schools, called Ms. Swift’s tutoring proposal a “good addition” to the mix of programs currently available to help students with the MCAS.

Massachusetts has made considerable progress in “shifting the paradigm away from denying diplomas to kids to making sure students are graduating with skills that will prepare them for higher education or a job,” Mr. Guenther said.

Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit public education fund that works mainly in urban schools, said she supports giving more students access to help for the MCAS. But she said true improvement efforts must be more substantive than getting students up to a very basic level of skills in order to graduate.

“If we’re calling this education reform,” she said, “this is not education reform.”

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