Mass. Eyes Alternate Diploma As Graduation Test Looms

By John Gehring — October 18, 2000 4 min read

As this year’s 10th graders become the first class in Massachusetts to be required to pass new tests in order to graduate, the state schools chief is recommending that students who fail the exams be allowed to earn local certificates anyway.

David P. Driscoll

Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll proposed last month in a memo to the state board of education that students who meet local course requirements for graduation—even if they have not passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams—be allowed to earn a state-endorsed local certificate. The certificates “would recognize what students have accomplished during high school and help them pursue certain post-high-school endeavors such as the military,” Mr. Driscoll wrote in his Sept. 19 proposal.

Students who failed to pass the MCAS also would have unlimited retesting opportunities beyond their high school graduation date, with the costs to be paid by the state, Mr. Driscoll proposed. That policy would be consistent with the board’s earlier discussion of the idea, he said, as well as a promise made by Lt. Gov. Jane Swift this past summer to offer “continuing opportunities” to students who could not pass the tests.

The commissioner also recommended that students who fail MCAS exams be allowed to take retests designed solely to determine whether they have met minimum passing standards on the tests. Under the proposal, students could take those scaled-down, “focused” exams up to four times.

The shorter exams would exclude more difficult questions that are used either to determine if students have attained higher levels of mastery or for such purposes as field-testing items for future tests and helping with curriculum planning in certain academic-content areas.

Mr. Driscoll said in his memo that the exams would still require students “to demonstrate the same level of content knowledge and skills to earn a passing score on the retests as they will on the standard MCAS exam.”

But a Boston Globe editorial dubbed the proposed retest idea “MCAS Lite” and a retreat from high standards.

James A. Peyser, the chairman of the state school board, said the board plans to take up the retesting issue before the end of the year.

As for the local- certificate proposal, he said the board would consider it at an undetermined later date. But he described the board’s reaction to the idea of a state- endorsed local certificate as “cool at best.”

“It would create the impression of a second-tier diploma, and there is some reason to be concerned about that,” Mr. Peyser said.

Multiple Assessments Urged

Laura S. Barrett, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a 90,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, said the state union did not support the idea of a local certificate.

“We think there should be multiple assessments for a single diploma, not one assessment for multiple diplomas,” she said. Along with other organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the MTA intends to seek legislation that would allow for multiple assessments to enable students to qualify for diplomas by showing competency beyond the MCAS.

The certificate proposal, Ms. Barrett said, reflects a growing sense of anxiety about the MCAS. The class of 2003 must pass the MCAS mathematics and English exams to graduate. Last year, 68 percent of the state’s 10th graders passed the English section, and 47 percent passed the math section.

“This is a sign that the board of education is hearing significant concern from both parents and educators, and they are trying to find a way to avoid having 50,000 students on their doorsteps because they didn’t get a diploma,” Ms. Barrett said.

Report Cites Dropouts

The MCAS, administered each year to 4th, 8th, and 10th graders, has been a source of heated debate. In April, hundreds of high school students from about a dozen schools boycotted the test. (“Students Boycott Tests in Mass. To Protest Emphasis on Exams,” April 19, 2000.)

Mr. Driscoll’s recommendations came as groups critical of the MCAS issued a report claiming that more students were dropping out of school in part because of the testing program. The report was issued by FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based advocacy group critical of standardized testing, and the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, a statewide group of parents and educators concerned about the impact of the MCAS on students.

In their Sept. 27 “MCAS Alert,” the groups pointed to state statistics showing that in the 1998-99 school year, 9,188 Massachusetts students in grades 9-12 dropped out of the state’s public high schools. The report titled “MCAS: Making Massachusetts Dropout Crisis Worse” also notes that the figure was the highest since the state enacted the MCAS as part of a broad package of education measures in 1993.

The report does not indicate, however, what percentage of high school students the 1998-99 dropout figure represents, or how that percentage compares with the dropout rate in 1993-94.

Statistics from the state education department show that while the number of students in grades 9-12 who dropped out did rise from 8,512 in 1993-94 to 9,188 in 1998-99, the dropout rate actually dipped by one-tenth of 1 percent over the same period—from 3.7 percent to 3.6 percent—because of an increase in total high school enrollment.

Anne Wheelock, a senior researcher with the two groups and the author of the report, said one of their chief concerns was that African-American and Hispanic students enrolled in urban districts represent a disproportionate percentage of dropouts statewide, and that those students are being driven out of school by the tests.

“The real story is who gets left behind,” Ms. Wheelock said.

A spokesman for Commissioner Driscoll said last week that it was premature to conclude that the MCAS—not yet required for graduation—would exacerbate the dropout problem. He also cited plans to allow students multiple chances to pass the tests.

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