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Science MCAS bedevils seniors

4,100 still need to pass exam to graduate

Binta Bah has failed the science exam four times, almost always by two points. Binta Bah has failed the science exam four times, almost always by two points. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 9, 2010

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With less than two months to go before high school commencements, more than 4,100 seniors across Massachusetts have not met a new state graduation requirement: passing an MCAS science exam.

The students, about 6 percent of the state’s approximately 69,000 12th-graders, have failed the exam repeatedly, most recently in February. Now, they are scrambling to prepare for another testing session Wednesday, the final opportunity to pass the exam and receive a diploma with their classmates.

The predicament is sounding alarms among some education advocates, who say that persistent failure could cause many of these students to give up on receiving a diploma, a potential setback as the state tries to boost its graduation rate. Last year, 81.5 percent of 12th-graders graduated four years after entering high school.

Binta Bah, 19, an East Boston High School senior, has failed the science exam four times, almost always coming up short by two points. She plans to take the exam Wednesday and has been attending tutoring sessions every day at school.

“Every time I get my results back, tears come out of eyes,’’ said Bah, who recently bought her prom gown and is waiting to hear back on college acceptances. “It’s really frustrating. I’m putting all my hard work into this. . . . Sometimes you want to give up, but you can’t if you want to graduate.’’

The science requirement is intended to better prepare high school graduates for careers in the booming health and science fields and to help them more easily navigate an everyday world more reliant on technology.

The state gives science exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and technology/engineering. Students need to pass only one of those by scoring at least “needs improvement,’’ the second lowest of the four scoring categories.

The state is holding firm on the graduation requirement, even at the risk of fewer students graduating on time.

“I’m always concerned about individual students who have not met the graduation requirement,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “Nonetheless, the science requirement is appropriate and reasonable, and our schools have demonstrated the ability to deliver increasingly stronger results for students.’’

The new science requirement comes seven years after the state mandated that all high school students must pass MCAS exams in English and math in order to receive a diploma. That requirement led to some high-profile revolts, including at least one lawsuit and threats from a handful of school committees that they would ignore the state edict.

But such controversy has largely been absent this time around, which many educators and advocates take as a sign that schools have come to accept the tests. Still, some groups want to be sure that schools and the state have a plan to help 12th-graders who still have not passed the exam by the end of the school year.

Students can go to summer school or return to classes in the fall if they have not completed all their high school courses or other local graduation requirements. But students blocked from receiving a diploma solely because of the MCAS often enter a state of limbo, stuck somewhere between high school and college.

“We need to let them know we’ll stay with them no matter what,’’ said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership between the city’s government, education, and business sectors that has been working to reduce the city’s high school drop-out rate. Seven years ago, the council established a summer work program that includes daily tutoring for students who missed graduation because of MCAS failure.

Across the state, schools have developed tutoring programs for those students who fail the MCAS. The effort appears to be having some success. The failure rate has dropped from about 20 percent in fall 2008 to about 6 percent last month.

In many cases, schools are dealing with an academically challenging population. Of the remaining 4,119 12th-graders who have not passed, 60 percent receive special education, and more than 12 percent are learning to speak English.

Brook Farm Academy in West Roxbury started off the year with 14 of its approximately 80 seniors needing to pass the science exam. Over the course of seven weeks, the school offered the students 40 hours of additional instruction after school and had nearly perfect attendance rates among the students.

All but one of the students passed the test in February, and the other student missed the passing mark by two points. Now, one of the school’s biology teachers is tutoring the student for next week’s test.

“I think she can do it,’’ said the teacher, Kate Stonefoot. “She just needs to answer one extra question.’’

Brockton High School also has been offering intensive help, reducing the number of seniors who have not met the new science requirement from 70 in September to 16 last month. The school is hoping the remaining students pass the test next week by having them complete a biology “boot camp’’ that has been meeting three times a week.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed,’’ said Susan Szachowicz, Brockton High’s principal.

Even after Wednesday’s test, students who fail will have another chance to take it again in June. While that test won’t be graded in time for graduation day, scores will be released before fall so successful students can proceed with college plans.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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