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2,933 to miss diploma over science MCAS

Rule exacts its first toll

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 28, 2010

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Nearly 3,000 high school seniors across Massachusetts will not get their diplomas next month because they failed to pass the MCAS science exam, the first rejections under a new state graduation requirement meant to develop a more scientifically skilled workforce.

Guidance counselors and other administrators have been delivering the news to hundreds of those students this week who failed the most recent round of testing last month. Hundreds of other seniors who have yet to pass the exam did not take the retest last month for a variety of reasons.

Students will have another shot at the science exam next month, but that won’t be graded in time for graduation, dashing their commencement plans. Those who fail yet again would have to retake the exam during the next school year, forcing them to delay college.

The 2,933 students unable to earn diplomas represent about 4 percent of this year’s senior classes, according to data requested by the Globe from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. More than half of these students also have not passed at least one of the other MCAS exams, in English and math, that are necessary for graduation.

Mitchell Chester, the department’s commissioner, called the failure rate alarming. He said that school districts have pledged to work diligently to help these students pass future testing sessions and that some districts have created summer school opportunities for these students.

“I know our schools are going the extra mile,’’ Chester said in an interview. “We are not going to give up on these students.’’

The new requirement is intended to better prepare students for careers in the booming health and science fields and to navigate a world that is more reliant on science and technology, from understanding the complexities of various health issues to the mechanics behind modern electronic devices.

But some educators and school advocates say requiring that students pass a science test for graduation goes too far. Some students, they say, are not adept at the sciences, and some schools struggle to offer rigorous science programs because of difficulty in finding qualified teachers or a lack of modern science labs and other resources.

Of those who have not passed the science exam, 69 percent receive special education services and 12 percent are learning to speak English.

“I’m totally sympathetic to kids who can’t graduate from high school because they can’t pass someone else’s test,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which says the state should use more than MCAS to judge a student’s knowledge.

The state gives science exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and technology/engineering as part of its Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which was created under the 1993 Education Reform Act. Students can start taking the science exams as freshmen and have to score at least “needs improvement,’’ the second lowest of the four scoring categories, on at least one of the subjects.

The state has shown some leniency as districts and students get accustomed to the new requirement. Last year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education amended the rules so that students can apply for a waiver to the requirement after failing the science exam once, instead of three times, which is the requirement for English and math.

The state, however, has granted only 187 waivers this year. The bar for receiving a waiver is high: Students must have done well in a science course in the subject matter tested and have good attendance records. Other appeals are pending.

The number of students not in compliance with the new requirement has dropped roughly by a quarter since last month, from 4,119 to 2,933 this week. The numbers have shifted in part because 630 seniors, 51 percent of those who sat down for the exam last month, passed. The numbers also have declined because students have received waivers, transferred to schools out of state, or dropped out, among other reasons.

In Boston, Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said the city is working to help students pass the exam when it is given again next month. For those who still do not pass, Wilder said, the district is committed to preparing them for another round of testing during the next school year.

Of the 4,189 Boston seniors enrolled in public schools by Tuesday, 494 had not passed the science exam. However, Wilder said 257 of those students could qualify for an exemption because they were originally members of a previous graduating class not bound by the science requirement.

“There’s a real effort to make sure students get extra support they need to meet the requirement,’’ said Wilder, who expressed regret that these students will not be able to take part in graduation ceremonies next month. “I think it’s unfortunate, especially for students who are a few points shy of passing.’’

Christopher Anderson — president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which represents high-tech companies — said he was encouraged by the pass rate for this year’s senior class and predicted the rates would go up for subsequent classes, just as they have each year for English and math since those exams became requirements seven years ago.

“Given the fact the science test is in its infancy, the numbers will improve as schools focus more on science as a passing requirement,’’ said Anderson, a former education board chairman.

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

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