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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Opening Statement on Competency Determination

November 23, 1999

The matter before us today is historic and momentous. For the first time, the Massachusetts Board of Education is preparing to establish a high school graduation requirement that is based on academic performance. Up to this point, the only state mandated pre-requisites for a high school diploma have been one year of American history and four years of gym. With the initial vote we take today and the final decision we make in January, we will at long last place outcomes and achievement ahead of inputs and seat time.

There are those who believe that establishing an academic graduation standard is unfair and punitive. That it denies a valuable credential to young people who already have many obstacles to overcome. Others argue that it is too soon to take this step, either because students and schools have not had enough time to prepare or because we should wait until a wider variety of assessments is available to more fully measure all aspects of student ability. What these critics fail to recognize is that rejecting or delaying the implementation of a meaningful graduation requirement will not be a gift to those students who lack the knowledge and skill to reach the standard. To the contrary, it will be a punishment, in that it will help perpetuate a system and a culture that allow many young people to enter the world unprepared for success and set up for failure. The promise of a graduation standard is that it will impel young people to take seriously their responsibilities as students, and will at the same time bring out of the shadows those young people who are not being given the opportunity or support necessary to fulfill their potential.

Unlike those who argue that the standard we propose today is too much to ask, others argue that it is too little; that establishing a performance requirement below our aspirations for all graduates debases the terms "standard" and "competency," which are at the core of education reform. But these critics do not adequately appreciate that this is the beginning of a process to establish and raise standards, it is not the end. Our first task is to ensure that clearly failing work is not rewarded with a high school diploma. Our longer-term objective is to bring all graduates to proficiency. In order to achieve this long term goal we must take care not to sacrifice the good in deference to the perfect. We cannot achieve our objective in a single step. Instead, we must begin and sustain a process of continuous improvement. To do that we must establish initial standards that are challenging, but achievable. And while we must speak honestly about the distance yet to travel, we must do so in a way that does not destroy hope.

I believe the proposal before you today, which is endorsed by both the Commissioner and me, strikes the right balance between today's reality and our expectations for the future. I hope it receives your support.



Last Updated: November 23, 1999
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