Massachusetts Leads Revolt Against Graduation Tests
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
The state that gave us the Boston Tea Party is again on the leading edge of a growing national rebellion. This time, high school graduation exams are the enemy and the rabble-rousers are Massachusetts teenagers.
On Monday, while 220,000 of their colleagues obediently took the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, hundreds of no-shows traveled to the state capitol to hold a MCAS protest rally. Joined by parents and teachers, the students delivered 7,000 signatures demanding that Massachusetts repeal a law pegging high school graduation to passing the test. Protestors held aloft placards telling Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci to "Kiss My MCAS," the Boston Globe reported.
Cellucci, whose office was guarded by six state troopers and a red velvet rope, according to the Globe , never came face-to-face with any of the protesting pupils. "We believe that the MCAS discriminates against forms of intelligence outside a very narrow spectrum," says protestor Tim Kaldas, 16, a Reading High sophomore.
Kaldas and his compatriots aren't alone in their opposition to high school graduation tests. In at least a dozen states grassroots parent's groups opposed to high-stakes tests determining whether students pass to the next grade or graduate have sprung up.
At least 24 states have laws authorizing high school graduation exams. They are Alabama, Alaska, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
Last month, Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone introduced a bill banning the use of state tests as the principal factor determining graduation. Wellstone's "Fairness and Accuracy in Student Testing Act" would force states that use high-stakes exit exams to also consider grades, work samples and other factors.
Sandra Feldman, head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union, accuses governors and politicians of moving too fast in setting up the tests. "If you don't put a curriculum into place and don't prepare teachers and just give the kids a test, you will get a backlash" Feldman says.
The MCAS test being given in Massachusetts won't affect graduating seniors until the class of 2003. But if it were to count for this year's graduating class, Boston think tank MassINC estimates that roughly 25,000 Bay State students wouldn't be able to don caps and gowns next month.
The MCAS boycott began in April, during the English portion of the test. Throngs of students from about 30 schools, many whom had the support of their parents and teachers, deliberately scored a zero or were suspended when they boycotted the MCAS. Students organized themselves statewide under the name SCAM -- Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS -- and even launched a SCAM Web page.
In March, 300 Colorado teachers and students went to the Colorado statehouse to pressure lawmakers who want to use test scores to determine whether schools are taken over by the state.
"Parents are pretty upset about using a single test score to determine their children's future life opportunities," says Karen Hartke of Fair Test, a national organization that opposes testing.
Graduation tests are part of a standards-based school reform movement that's swept through every state legislature, except Iowa's. An emphasis is placed on establishing yardsticks for student performance at each grade level, with tests monitoring how effectively schools are teaching.
When states used standards solely to measure school performance, those reforms went into place with barely a ripple. Coming out in favor of tougher academic standards is easy, says David Griffith, spokesman for the National Association of School Boards of Education (NASBE). But when failing test scores start to come in, it's more difficult to sustain parental support, Griffith says.
"For the first time this (school reform) is hitting middle-class white people in the suburbs, and those are people who tend to know how to work the political system," says Gary Natriello of Teachers College at Columbia University.
The AFT surveyed their members last September and found 73 percent of the teachers' support the new standards agenda, but Feldman adds that tests should be broad and should not be "the be all and end all."
Bruce M. Penniman, an Amherst Regional High School teacher and last year's Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, doesn't object to high stakes testing. "But I don't think it should be limited to a paper and pencil test," Penniman says. "There are too many students that don't perform their best in that form of structure, but could show their achievement in other ways."
Opposition to high-stakes testing has led to a number of high-profile confrontations nationwide:
- Louisiana is being sued by New Orleans parents seeking to block a new exam that determines whether grade school students get promoted.
- Virginia suffered a public relations blow when the majority of the state's students failed the Standards of Learning (SOL) test. Lawmakers considered six bills this session that would have prohibited the use of SOLs as the sole factor determining if a high school student will graduate or if schools will be accredited. Some of the bills were killed, while others remain in committee.
- Maryland teachers have called for a review of the state's academic assessment program for all grades after so many students performed poorly. Only 47 percent of the expected 70 percent reached "satisfactory" on the exam. Oregon and Virginia have committed to reviewing standards.
- Parents in California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio have been encouraged by grass-roots campaign organizers to keep their children home when the academic assessment exams are given.
In states where education reforms and graduation tests were phased in slowly -- Texas, Kentucky and Maryland -- resistance from parents, students and teachers has been minimal. That hasn't been the case in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Virginia, states that put everything in place at once.
In some cases the rush toward accountability has outpaced the ability to provide schools and teachers with the tools they need to help students reach the standards.
"On the one hand the public and leaders say no child can be left behind -- we need to do this immediately," says NASBE's Griffith. "But putting the tests in place immediately isn't fair either, because you are holding (students) to a standard that you haven't prepared them to meet."