Ed reform must move beyond MCAS

This article first appeared in CommonWealth Magazine

As Mayor of New Bedford, I rely upon the entire community to work together to move our city forward. So it alarms me to watch New Bedford’s best resources, our promising young people, deprived of an opportunity to fully participate in our society. The young people to whom I refer stayed in school, passed their classes, sang in the choir, played sports, served on the student council, joined the junior ROTC, made up the social fabric of the classrooms, worked at the grocery store, and volunteered at the hospital. Yet they were denied a high school diploma because of their inability to pass a single standardized test.

In Massachusetts, the Legislature enacted education reform, and its subsequent implementation, with the noblest of intentions: to improve educational standards. However, one component of the Education Reform Act caused egregious unintended consequences in New Bedford and in other cities across the state. We created a system that denies a public high school diploma to students who achieve all local standards for public high school graduation but fail a standardized test.

Without a high school diploma, these students are denied the opportunity to fully participate in our society. These students are lumped in with high school dropouts, many of whom will be unable to find gainful employment or opportunity in their lifetimes. In New Bedford and in other cities, this means that the social costs posed by individuals without high school diplomas will grow every year, decreasing our tax base and creating an increased tax burden for our residents.

I am not even accounting for the number of children who drop out of high school because of their fear of not passing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, test. While there are no firm statistics on how the test affects the dropout rate, I believe the MCAS is another hurdle that contributes to students leaving school. A report recently released by the Massachusetts Department of Education indicates that 50 percent of the state’s high school juniors who dropped out had not earned their MCAS competency determination at the time that they left school. Of the students in their senior year who dropped out, 28 percent had not yet earned their MCAS competency determination.

While many believe that the MCAS is essential to ensure that Massachusetts students have reached an appropriate level of achievement to obtain a high school degree, the MCAS system does not apply to the 134,023 students in private or parochial schools in the state of Massachusetts. This disparity of standards is neither logical nor equitable. Further, universities and colleges do not consider MCAS scores when they evaluate candidates for admission, nor do they discriminate against applicants from other states who may or may not have had to pass a different standardized test in order to gain a high school diploma.

The dropout rate in the cities of Massachusetts is unacceptable. However, a comparison of dropout numbers throughout the country shows that the problem is truly a nationwide crisis, not unique to our state. Data indicate that the high school graduation rate in Massachusetts, which hovers around 72 percent annually, is on par with states from all parts of the country. With only 70 percent of students in the United States receiving a high school diploma, and 1.2 million students dropping out of high school annually, we are confronted with a problem that has tremendous implications for our society. In fact, a recent report released by America’s Promise Alliance indicates that in 17 of the nation’s largest cities, the dropout rate exceeds the graduation rate. The report goes on to cite huge discrepancies in dropout rates for major cities in comparison with their suburbs. This is a catastrophe and a clear indicator that the American public school system is failing.

In Massachusetts, we have created a system that unintentionally exacerbates the number of students who leave public high school without a diploma. Unilaterally, education reform, with its public school MCAS graduation requirement, has effectively added, on average, 30 percent each year to the “dropout” numbers. In 2003, the first year of the MCAS requirement, the Massachusetts Department of Education reported that 9,389 students dropped out of high school. By June of that same year, 5 percent of the class of 2003, or 3,282 students statewide, had failed to receive an MCAS competency determination, depriving them of a high school diploma. This means that a combined total of 12,671 students statewide left high school without a diploma in 2003. This pattern has continued through the most recent year for which data is available: In 2007, 11,346 students dropped out of high school and 4,441 students did not receive an MCAS competency determination, for a combined total of 15,787 students statewide who left high school without receiving a diploma.

It is clear that in each year since 2003, the MCAS exam has continued to contribute to the number of young residents in cities across the state who fail to graduate from high school, and who are lumped together with young people who drop out of high school. However, let us be clear: Students who meet all graduation requirements but do not pass the MCAS are not dropouts. They are students who have successfully completed kindergarten through the 12th grade and are looking for an opportunity to succeed in our society. Using the MCAS as an assessment tool to measure student learning at a single point in time is a logical use of the standardized test. As a diploma requirement, however, it is unacceptable and is causing mounting problems in our communities.

While many speak of the need for our students to compete in a global economy, it is evident that in several ways that our local economies have a minimal overlap with the worldwide economy. Our skilled tradesmen, hospitality workers, service industry workers, and construction workers, to name only a few vocations, provide services that form the backbone of our communities and their local economies. These jobs, held by a majority of the residents of many communities, cannot be outsourced. Many of our students are hardly competing with students from afar. They are attempting to establish sustainable vocations in our cities and towns, perhaps not as college or community college graduates, but as skilled, dependable employees. Instead, without a high school diploma, they are forced to compete with the individuals who have dropped out of our school systems.

The effects on society of MCAS casualties—those students who have met local graduation requirements but not passed the exam—are measurable and real. These public school students, who receive “certificates of completion” rather than high school diplomas, are relegated to the same class of wage earners as those who have chosen to drop out of high school. Analysis of federal receipts and expenditures indicates that a household headed by a dropout costs society $22,449 more per year in direct benefits and means-tested aid when compared to a household headed by a high school graduate.

The Department of Education has indicated that since the inception of the MCAS graduation requirement, each year 5 percent of enrolled public high school seniors statewide, on average, are not graduating from high school because they have not met one or both of the MCAS requirements. From 2003 through the graduating public high school class of 2007, 16,841 students have been given “dropout” status, leaving little opportunity for jobs paying a living wage, further education, or a sustainable career. These 16,841 students, multiplied by $22,449 per year in societal support, represent a cost to society of over $3.5 billion. This figure, representing the cost to Massachusetts alone, will be a tremendous and continually increasing drain on our local, state, and federal government and our community nonprofits.

Our society cannot afford this self-imposed silent tax to support public school students who have met all high school diploma requirements except the MCAS requirement and who desire the opportunity, and have the ability, to support themselves.

In addition, these students who now are relegated to “dropout” status will never have an opportunity to earn a living that generates taxable income to address the needs and provide services for our communities. According to the most recent data available from the national Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals who lack a high school diploma earn an average of only $21,788 annually, or 30 percent less than the average annual income of an individual with a high school diploma ($30,940). Based on this data, the difference in lifetime incomes between a high school dropout and a high school graduate is $384,384. Moreover, dropouts on average pay about half the taxes of high school graduates.

The opportunities afforded to students who cannot pass the MCAS are dismal. While little if any tracking of these students has been done by the Massachusetts Department of Education, we have the benefit of a large pool of data on the consequences of being a high school dropout in the United States. We know that those without a high school diploma are eight times more likely to serve time in jail or prison than high school graduates. Only 40 percent of our high school dropouts have jobs, compared with a 60 percent employment rate for high school graduates and an 80 percent employment rate for college graduates.

The fiscal burden imposed by the social costs and lost tax revenue of the “dropout” status problem continues to be compounded by the wasted resources expended by our school systems in an attempt to first teach, and then tutor, to the test. Our students, rather than being given the chance to participate in enrichment activities designed to foster a love of learning, spend countless hours reviewing the material that will be presented on the MCAS. The modern education reform curriculum emphasizes teaching to the test and teaching how to take the high-stakes test. Those who fail then receive costly remediation late in the game that consumes much of their time. At the end of the day, many students, unable to pass the test, finish their senior year of high school with a worthless certificate.

The MCAS failure rate hits cities of Massachusetts the hardest, and worse yet, both minority students and students who speak English as a second language fail at a rate significantly higher than their peers. Within the public high school class of 2007 in Massachusetts, 94 percent of all students passed the MCAS test and were eligible to receive a high school diploma. However, only 82 percent of black students, 83 percent of Hispanic students, and 60 percent of students with limited English proficiency passed the MCAS. The racial inequities created as a result of the MCAS graduation requirement damage the very economic and social fabric of our cities.

We work every day to keep in school students in danger of dropping out, and in New Bedford in 2006 we saw our dropout rate decrease by 3 percentage points from the previous year, one of the largest decreases among urban areas in the Commonwealth. In 2007, despite increased efforts, the dropout rate inched up again. State educational policy must enable us to strengthen and build our communities, not detract from them. The MCAS graduation requirement has harmed thousands of students across our state and poses a cost to the rest of us that numbers in the billions of dollars. This situation cannot be sustained.

We have had several years to watch as the unintended consequences of this test have caused great harm in cities across the Commonwealth. We now need to work together to implement a bifurcated system of public high school diplomas: an MCAS high school diploma, certifying that a student has passed the MCAS exam, and an accredited high school diploma. This system will even the playing field for all of our high school students, whether they’re enrolled in public, private, or parochial schools throughout the state.

Each of our young students is a unique individual who can positively contribute to our communities and the world. With the MCAS graduation requirement, some of these young people will never have an opportunity to succeed. We should not be holding them back because of a graduation standard that has no relevance in terms of determining success over the course of their future careers and endeavors. Let these young men and women have the opportunity to excel.

Scott W. Lang is the mayor of New Bedford.