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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Comments on the Setting of the Competency Determination for Grade 10 MCAS at 220

November 22, 1999

Why Set the Score at 220?

It is a reasonable starting point: Given the performance to date of 8th graders and 10th graders, it is clear that "Needs Improvement" is, unfortunately, a challenging standard for a very large percentage of students-especially in math. Setting the initial standard at "Proficiency" would likely result in de-motivating too many students and schools, and would at the same time undermine the widespread public and political support necessary to maintain the forward progress of education reform. "Proficiency" is our objective, but we cannot reach it in a single step. In essence, we must strike a balance between lighting a fire under the system to accelerate improvement and throwing a bomb that will leave the system in chaos.

It is easily explained and defended: Failing is failing, by definition, and our first objective should be to ensure that diplomas are not granted to students who lack the most basic knowledge and skills. The student work in this category is demonstrably unsatisfactory and inadequate for graduation, a conclusion that is reinforced by the strong correlation between "Failing" MCAS performance and poor performance on other standardized tests. Having said that, there is a temptation to set a higher threshold, although one short of "Proficiency," since much of the work in the lower reaches of "Needs Improvement" is also quite weak. But, given the extensive process used to establish the break points between the four performance categories, choosing any other starting point within "Needs Improvement" would inevitably be somewhat arbitrary, and therefore difficult to defend.

Does 220 Represent a Lowering of Standards?

No. We are establishing a standard where none exists. As the MCAS results clearly show, there are thousands of students graduating from high school each year who lack even basic knowledge and skills. Moreover, we are explicitly recommending only that 220 act as a starting point, not the end point. We are not recommending that "Needs Improvement" be redefined as "Proficient." Doing so would truly compromise the standards we have set. Instead, we are acknowledging the simple reality that only through a process of continuous improvement will we reach our ultimate objective.

Last Updated: November 22, 1999
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