Jeanette Rodriguez admits that passing Massachusetts’ new high school graduation exams was the least of her worries last year. Hanging out with friends and having fun seemed more important than brushing up on the skills she needed to pass the tests.
“I really didn’t pay that much attention to it,” Ms. Rodriguez, now a junior at Burncoat High School in Worcester, Mass., said about the graduation portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.
Beginning with her class of 2003, students who want their diplomas must pass MCAS language arts and mathematics exams. Students have five chances to pass the tests, which have been the subject of boycotts by some teachers and students.
After Ms. Rodriguez failed both tests on her first try last year, she knew she had to get to work.
Throughout the first half of this school year, she spent three days a week at school working with a tutor to prepare. Her efforts paid off this winter, when she passed the math and English tests. Her advice to other students: “Take all of the extra help that teachers can give you.”
Ms. Rodriguez isn’t alone in believing that her initial lack of effort was the main reason she didn’t pass the MCAS, according to a recent study by Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to improve achievement in the state’s public schools.
“Taking Charge: Urban High School Students Speak Out About Academics, MCAS, and Extra-Help Programs” is based on interviews with 140 randomly selected students from four urban high schools who failed the math or English section of the MCAS on their first try last spring.
The organization believes the report is the first intensive look at the attitudes of urban high school students in Massachusetts who didn’t pass the tests. It found that students cite their own lack of effort and poor school attendance as the main reasons.
Effort and Absenteeism
William Guenther, the president of Mass Insight Education, said the findings add a much-needed student voice to the debate over the value of the MCAS, which is being watched closely by assessment experts and educators in other states. Students who failed the MCAS, he stressed, clearly see the need to look at their individual work habits, rather than blaming the exams themselves or the curriculum.
Seventy-four percent of the students interviewed said that missing too much school was a “big reason” why they didn’t pass the exams, while 64 percent cited a lack of effort. While 67 percent of the students surveyed said they were working harder in school after failing the exams, 54 percent of the students noted they are still not attending extra-help sessions despite knowing about them.
Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll has been a strong advocate for the exams, as has acting Gov. Jane M. Swift, who joined Mass Insight Education officials for the release of the report last month.
Among the MCAS extra-help programs are free online tutorials offered by the state education department. More than 150 high schools have registered for the program, which students can also access from their homes.
But a number of students surveyed for the report said after-school commitments such as jobs or athletic events make it difficult to attend as many remedial programs as they would like.
Most of the students who did not pass the MCAS, the survey also found, have never seriously considered dropping out of school, an argument some MCAS critics have put forward as one of the exams’ unintended consequences.
Still, critics who see the MCAS as a flawed test that should not be tied to graduation said it’s wrong for students to blame themselves for failing it.
“It’s misleading to attribute all of the negative results on the MCAS to kids,” said Rob Riordan, a former Cambridge, Mass., teacher who along with other parents started the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education. The statewide group is concerned about the impact the state assessment is having on students, teachers, and the curriculum. He believes success on the exams has as much to do with savvy test-taking skills as with anything else.
But Joe Murphy, the principal of Burncoat High School in Worcester, disagrees. “It has finally dawned on everyone that the test is real, it’s here to stay, and it will count,” he said.
The report, Mr. Murphy added, mirrors the kind of message educators at his school have been trying to give students. “A lot of it backs up some of the same things we have been saying,” he said. “You can’t pass the test if you don’t come to school and work hard.”
Salsa as Incentive
Some schools have used creative approaches to motivate more students to stay after school to attend help sessions.
West Roxbury High School in Boston, for example, has used after-school funds from the mayor’s office for salsa and swing-dancing classes, chorus, a drama club, and other activities. Students who have failed the MCAS can participate if they attend an hour of MCAS preparation first.
Ed Donnelly, the assistant headmaster and MCAS coordinator at West Roxbury High, said the after-school activities make students more willing to give up free time for MCAS preparation. “These kids have a million reasons why they can’t stay, either they’re working or taking care of their younger sister. But we are trying to change that,” he said. “If kids have an activity they want to do, they will stay.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Students Take Responsibility For Poor MCAS Performance