WHEN MASSACHUSETTS made passing the science portion of the MCAS exam a graduation requirement for high school seniors, the state provoked the now-familiar charges that it is abandoning students who can’t pass the high-stakes test. In fact, the results are encouraging: Even with the change, about 95 percent of the members of the Class of 2010 have met the state’s tough graduation requirements. And even for those students who fell short, there are still opportunities to improve.
The success rate is a significant accomplishment that reflects the hard work of students and their teachers. Even so, nearly 3,000 high school seniors have failed to pass the MCAS science test, which bars them from receiving a high school degree. Of that number, however, about 2,200 also failed the math or English portion of the MCAS, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s not just biology or chemistry standing between these students and their diplomas.
In 2003, the state entered into a covenant with Massachusetts students when it mandated passing grades on math and English MCAS tests as a requirement for graduation. The stakes got higher this year with the addition of the MCAS science requirement. But the basic deal remains the same: there will be ample tutorials and retest opportunities, even beyond the expected date of graduation. The message then, as now, is to stay focused. As state education secretary Paul Reville puts it, “Graduating on time is less important than having the skill you need at the next level.’’ That is especially true in a state where many of the good jobs are found in medical and technical fields.
No one sitting in the audience at this year’s graduation ceremonies has to know whether a student is receiving a regular degree or a “certificate of attainment,’’ which signifies fulfillment of all graduation requirements other than MCAS. All can walk proudly across the stage. But some will return to their schools later in June for another attempt at the MCAS. Others can opt for MCAS remediation courses at any of nine community colleges across the state and, in some cases, take classes toward their associate’s degree at the same time. Still others can find the MCAS help they need at state-run career centers.
The promise of MCAS was to raise academic standards and ensure that a high school degree in Massachusetts really means something to employers and colleges. It was never meant to close any doors, and it doesn’t have to.