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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Statement by James A. Peyser on MCAS

November 28, 2000

Since our last meeting, the 2000 MCAS scores have been released and the political debate over high-stakes testing has intensified, yet again. But even though the scores are not yet meeting our expectations and the controversy continues, I remain convinced that we are on the right course.

Over the past three years, there is a pattern of modest, consistent improvement across the grades in both English and math. Since 1998, with the exception of 10th grade English, failure rates are down and scaled scores are up.

For now, as important as the data, is the mounting evidence on the ground that standards-based reform is working. In most districts, MCAS-including the consequences that are attached for students and adults-is causing schools to broaden and elevate their curriculum for all students. It is giving effective school leaders the information and leverage they need to drive change and improve the quality of instruction. It is helping school districts confront the structural barriers to reform that for years have stood in the way of educational excellence.

Of course, not everyone sees MCAS the way I do. There is a chorus of critics that believes high stakes testing is punitive, especially with respect to poor minority students in urban school systems.

High stakes are not punitive, if our standards and assessments are fair, as I believe them to be. A high school diploma is not an entitlement. It is something that must be earned through effort and achievement. Moreover, acquiring a diploma is not what education is about. Education is about acquiring knowledge and skill. It is unfair and unethical to hand young people a piece of paper and tell them they are ready for success when they are not.

The critics, however, say that the high failure rates-especially among minorities-prove that the test is simply too hard and inherently unfair. To be sure, if you look at the percentages only, the picture is not very hopeful. But when you look beyond the percentages to the actual numbers, you will quickly realize that this is a problem we can overcome.

For example, sixty percent of black 10th graders failed this year's English Language Arts test. That translates into just over 2,000 students. The vast majority of these students are concentrated in a relative handful of districts and schools. These districts and schools are receiving substantial sums of new money as part of the state's $40 million targeted MCAS remediation grant program-a program that is slated to grow to $55 million under the budget before us today. In short, we know who these young people are, we know where they go to school, we know what they need help on, and we are providing the resources necessary to deliver effective accelerated instruction.

We can get these students over the bar, as long as we focus our energy on teaching and learning.

Last Updated: November 28, 2000
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