June 8, 2010 (Published in The Boston Globe)
PUBLIC HIGH school students across the state continue to suffer the collateral damage from MCAS. Almost 3,000 seniors will not graduate this month because they did not pass the science section of the test, a new hurdle imposed this year that students must pass, in addition to the math and English components of the exam. Since MCAS was imposed in 2003, thousands of public school students finished high school without a diploma, because they were unable to pass the high-stakes test. These students met all other diploma requirements mandated by their high schools, completing the requisite math, science, English, and social studies courses, maintaining a passing grade point average and meeting attendance requirements, participating in extracurricular activities, and contributing to their school community.
At private and religious schools across the state, fulfilling those requirements earns a student a diploma. Private and religious school students (nearly 144,700) do not have to take MCAS. Ironically, MCAS has no more weight in the college admissions system than a private or religious school diploma. MCAS scores are not even reported to colleges and universities.
We are holding our students to two different standards, and we owe it to them to ask why. The state’s implicit lack of faith in the caliber of public schools is troubling. If we are not convinced that our public school systems are ensuring that students who successfully meet all graduation requirements set at the district level deserve a high school diploma, then we should reevaluate the governance and accreditation standards for all schools in the state. About 3,000 students each year successfully completed their studies to earn a high school diploma but did not receive it because they did not pass the MCAS. They may face a life of economic hardship and disadvantage as they try to navigate in a society that has relegated them to dropout status. We are creating a permanent underclass of young people who will be denied many opportunities that would be available to them with a diploma.
Of the 2,649 students who did not receive a diploma last year because of MCAS, 51 percent (1,354) were minorities, even though minorities were only 27 percent of the statewide class of seniors. The same trend holds true for income — 43 percent (1,142 students) were low-income, despite the fact that low-income students constituted just 25 percent of the class. Students in cities fared far worse than their suburban counterparts, with 1,526 (or 58 percent) of the 2,649 students coming from urban districts (just 27 percent of students in this statewide senior class were in urban districts).
These trends hold true for every class since the MCAS graduation requirement was imposed — the young people who feel the brunt of the negative effects of this standard are minority, low-income, and urban. While no one questions the goal of education reform in Massachusetts, it is unconscionable that we continue to support a system that has produced these results. We need to give our young people every opportunity to succeed and provide them with whatever support we can, not create artificial barriers that will adversely affect them for their entire adult lives.
Education remains the best opportunity for social mobility, and a system that arbitrarily places limits on young people cannot remain in place.
Educational equity requires that we award a MCAS high school diploma for those who pass the MCAS test, and a high school diploma to our otherwise graduating seniors in public school. This will be the same high school diploma that the students who attend private and religious schools earn each year and will allow all of our graduating students an opportunity to lead a successful life and contribute their maximum to society.
Scott W. Lang is the mayor of New Bedford.