By Anne Wheelock
Anne Wheelock is Senior Research Associate with the Progress Through the Educational Pipeline Project at Boston College. She is also the author of several books on education including "Crossing the Tracks: How 'Untracking' Can Save America's Schools" and "Safe To Be Smart: Building a Culture for Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades."
Along with the news of graduation ceremonies this spring of 2003 came a statewide celebration of MCAS "pass rates." According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, 93% of the Class of 2003 had passed MCAS in time to receive a diploma.
The problem is this: Just as the unemployment rate fails to account for job-seekers who've dropped out of the work force, MCAS pass rates fail to include students from the Class of 2003 who didn't survive to reach the twelfth grade. In fact, 77,733 students started out in the Class of 2003 as ninth graders in October 1999. By June 2003, some 17,000 had disappeared from the class.
Massachusetts Department of Education MCAS pass rates are based on the 60,000 survivors remaining in the Class of 2003. In fact, when calculations are based on the full class roster, only 71% of the class of 2003 passed MCAS and graduated. This rate compares to a graduation rate of 77% for the Class of 2002 and about 75% for every high school class for the last decade.
For six years, Massachusetts has spent over a hundred million dollars on MCAS in the belief that higher scores mean improved schooling. But higher scores, like pass rates, may actually reflect the fact that many students who start out in 9th grade don't progress through the grades in normal fashion. Some of the students lost along the way have dropped out. Others, held back in one or more grades, will struggle to reach their final year.
All this raises the question: Do we want education reform to benefit all students or just some? The MCAS graduation requirement has clearly narrowed access to further educational opportunity for many students. If we believe that every student should benefit from education reform, alternative policies are necessary.
Rather than labeling some students as "unworthy" of graduation, the state should adopt strategies that focus on expanding, not limiting, opportunities for all students to learn. This means setting a 90%-or-better graduation rate as a primary goal and providing schools with funding to improve holding power and provide personalized student support services to the most vulnerable students.
Expanding opportunity requires high expectations as a starting point for developing the talent of every student. But high expectations and talent development are not cost-free. Rhetoric means little in schools without library programs or where books are in short supply.
High expectations require reform of tracking and ability grouping practices that exclude many students from the best programs schools have to offer and professional development so that teachers can teach "gifted" curriculum to all students. Students needing extra help would receive it in their age-appropriate grade, not in the grade behind their classmates. All students would leave eighth grade with a plan to enroll in a curriculum leading to post-secondary education. AP courses would be open to all students based on their interest in a subject.
Developing talent requires rich, not remedial, learning opportunities. In the name of high expectations, vulnerable students are now steered into MCAS prep classes. But putting high expectations into practice should mean less MCAS prep and more learning that comes from Socratic discussions and in-depth assignments.
High expectations also mean pushing every student to participate in chess, debate, or robotics competitions, get involved in school newspaper and year book activities, exhibit original art work, perform in school choral or dramatic societies, or organize a school service program.
The MCAS agenda, with its bent toward separating the "deserving" from the "undeserving," is a poor substitute for the down-to-earth strategies that expand opportunities to learn. As more students leave school in the ninth grade, and as fewer return, high stakes testing is undermining, not strengthening, schools as places that expand opportunity for all students.
The MCAS graduation policy leaves thousands of young people with no realistic ticket to further education or even a job interview. While policy makers dazzle the public with higher pass rates contrived from misleading accounting practices, the state's most vulnerable young people are rendered invisible, and real reforms remain sidelined.