Talk Story


Sunday, December 2, 2001

Mandatory testing
program’s success
points the way forward

THE Star-Bulletin headline last August was "State math scores lagging. Isle students' scores have been improving, but still are below the national average. The schools chief says the results are 'a wake-up call that serious work is needed.'"

The headlines in the Boston Globe this month are startlingly different: "Struggling students are now achievers," "Efforts paying off in MCAS grades," "MCAS rankings reflect hard work," "Schools make big gains on MCAS," and "Some results from schools defy demographic factors."

MCAS is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, which tests fourth, eighth and 10th grades in English, math and science. To graduate from high school in 2003 and thereafter, every public school student in that state has to pass the 10th-grade test.

Massachusetts enacted an education reform law in 1993 that set mandatory standards and established the MCAS as the ticket that must be punched for students to get a diploma.

This year's test was the first that really counted and 73 percent of sophomores in Massachusetts' class of 2003 have already put both the English and math portions of the exam behind them.

Of those who didn't pass one portion or the other, most didn't miss by much. They'll get intensive training in the areas they failed and will have at least four more chances to pass.

A story in the Globe spells it out: "The students in room B414 at Malden High School are there for one reason -- they desperately want diplomas in 2003. 'If I don't graduate, my life will be screwed up. I won't have a future,' said Shelby Pierre. The problem is, he failed the math portion of the MCAS last spring."

MCAS was phased in gradually. Supporters of the reform plan were shaken last year, when 10th-graders did poorly on the test. This year, however, when the results really counted, the kids came through. While only 66 percent passed the English portion in 2000, this year 82 percent succeeded. In math, the pass rate went from 55 to 72 percent.

The MCAS now colors every discussion about education in that state. For example, the Globe's coverage of a fight to save aging Boston High notes: "Even School Department officials admit the school has improved. Its MCAS scores are up 10 percent in English and 11 percent in math."

Home buyers are looking at MCAS scores, which have become key factors in the growth and development of individual municipalities. As the Globe reported: "Five years ago, when the first round of MCAS scores were announced, Medfield was number one. With that came an influx of families.

"Today, 33 percent of the town's population is age 18 and under. 'Of course we still welcome newcomers, but we've grown considerably, and right now we're ranked 12th in MCAS,' said Town Administrator Michael Sullivan."

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week celebrated the testing program's success in multi-ethnic communities: "It's also satisfying to note that much of the improvement (in test scores) was driven by black and Hispanic teens, who more than doubled their pass rates."

While MCAS has demonstrated that schools in well-heeled areas generally outshine others, it has brought a new focus to teaching in less well-to-do schools.

Again from the Globe: "On the first day of classes every year, Decas Elementary School teacher Mary Hambly reads her students the children's book 'The Little Engine That Could.'

"Quietly, its message of triumph over adversity has become a district-wide mantra. Wareham, a growing and racially diverse town, posted higher MCAS scores this year than many of its more affluent neighbors."

The contrast is stark.

From the Star-Bulletin: "Hawaii's fourth and eighth graders are doing better in math but still fall well below the national average, according to a national assessment released today."

From the Globe: "Massachusetts fourth-graders beat students in every other state and eighth-graders tied for second place on the science portion of a highly respected exam known as 'the nation's report card.' The students' performance on the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress is the latest in a series of positive testing developments for the state."

The difference, according to the Journal editorial, is "the unwavering political will to implement the tests and hold the education establishment accountable."

Could it happen here?

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

E-mail to Editorial Editor

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