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Flexibility, not Leniency, Needed on MCAS
by Education Commissioner Driscoll P. Driscoll

When Education Reform in Massachusetts was first instituted, the authors had one goal in mind: developing a system that would hold all students to the same high — but attainable — standard.

That is the point behind the proposed MCAS appeals process, and that is precisely what recent media reports stating that we are preparing to "lower the standards" have chosen to ignore.

Now it’s time to set the record straight.

There is one thing on which I will never bend, and that is requiring this high standard of the students of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

As I have said repeatedly, all of our students must demonstrate they are capable of reaching what we have come to know as the 220-standard level of work before we will allow them to graduate. End of story.

Now, this could mean that they obtain a score of at least 220 on the 10th grade math and English MCAS exams. Or, if the appeals process I proposed to the Board of Education on Tuesday is approved, it could mean that some are given the chance to prove through evidence — such as other standardized test scores or classroom work samples — that they are capable of meeting this performance standard.

Under the proposal, students will need their superintendent to officially recommend them for an appeal to a review board. Whether or not the appeal will be granted will be my decision, based on the review board’s recommendation, and the student’s performance in the classes they took in the subject in question.

The proposal was developed by the Department of Education, with the help of a Blue Ribbon Panel consisting of superintendents, the teachers unions, business leaders, parents, and two Board of Education members.

To me, this is a basic issue of fairness.

The fact is that some students simply don’t test well, but do not have trouble succeeding when assessed in other ways. I simply cannot allow us to turn a blind eye from these students, who deserve as much of a chance to succeed as their classmates.

Unfortunately, this proposal was widely misrepresented in Wednesday’s papers. It was characterized as a "lowering of the bar," and headlines blared that I was backing down from my position on high standards.

This is just not true.

What I have proposed is a system that will ensure students who, for whatever reason, cannot demonstrate their true ability on MCAS but can show evidence they meet the standard in other ways, are not unjustly penalized

Let’s be clear. This does not mean that a student who fails the test, has done poorly in school and has a bad attendance record will get a free pass to graduate. What it does mean is that a student who simply does not test well, but can clearly meet the 220 standard in other ways will be considered.

My proposal to the Board also included four criteria for student eligibility. Students will have to have taken the exams a number of times and obtained a minimum score at least once. They will also need to have maintained a high attendance rate, and completed a significant number of hours of remediation and/or tutoring. A student would have to meet all of these criteria to even be considered.

In my opinion, once the details are hammered out by the board, very few students will ever actually meet all of the eligibility requirements. In fact, I would be surprised if more than 1,000 students a year actually qualify, and far fewer will ever be approved.

It is very hard to score in the proficient and advanced ranges on the MCAS, but it is not a hard test to pass. This is an issue I struggle over. It’s unclear to me why some students cannot pass it, especially when given multiple tries.

But my heart tells me we need to at least form a process that allows their case to be heard.

This is about being fair to all students. Those few who will meet the eligibility criteria deserve to graduate — not because we have lowered the bar for them, but because in their own way, they have met the same high standards as their classmates.

Last Updated: September 29, 2001
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