Mass Grad Test Battle Flares Again

K-12 Testing

The Mayor and School Committee of the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, announced in May that they would award diplomas to students who have completed all their graduation requirements but have not passed the state test, the MCAS. Governor Mitt Romney immediately threatened to block $103 million in state funds to the very low-income district. Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives to allow local diplomas.


This flare-up of the battle over the graduation test came a surprise since 2006 will be the fourth year in which students who do not pass the test will be denied a diploma. (Some students do use an appeals process to graduate despite failing the test.) Since 2003, it has become clear that those who do not graduate are disproportionately low-income, children of color, whose first language is not English, or who have a disability. The state claims an overall pass rate of more than 90 percent, but it is far lower for those groups. The official figures ignore students who leave school before their senior year. Only about 70 percent of Massachusetts students make it to graduation, a rate that declined in the past year.


New Bedford officials believe that the graduation test contributes to the dropout crisis. In New Bedford, 66% of the students are low-income, compared with 26% statewide; and the districts dropout rate is higher than the state average.


The matter will come to a head if the district awards diplomas to students who did not pass the test or win an appeal. If New Bedford holds to its decision and emerges unscathed, other districts may do the same. High-stakes testing proponents fear--and opponents hope--this will seriously damage the test-based graduation requirement. Test reform advocates have been sending letters to editors, calling legislators, and building support for New Bedford.


Mayor Scott W. Lang told Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, "What about those kids who stay in school, pass the course work, but don't pass the MCAS? Should we just tell them, 'Thanks for coming, we appreciate it, take care?"(May 14, 2006) Venocchi pointed out that thousands of Massachusetts students graduate without passing the MCAS because they attend private and parochial schools. Such students are admitted to state colleges and are eligible for federal financial aid, unlike public school students who do not pass the MCAS.


In 2002-03, as the denial of diplomas based on test scores loomed for the first time in Massachusetts, half a dozen school committees voted to award diplomas regardless of test results. Then, as now, the state threatened to withhold funding from districts. The state Education Department also threatened to revoke the license of any district superintendent who signed such diplomas. The school committees backed down. This campaign had largely been coordinated by the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE), with which FairTest worked closely. In addition, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees had passed resolutions for several years opposing the graduation test requirement.


Active resistance to the graduation requirement had waned since the graduation test came into effect. CARE and other groups have focused on blocking the addition of a science test to the graduation requirements (so far unsuccessfully) and preventing an increase in the minimum test-score cutoff (thus far successfully). Legislation to block the graduation test requirement and to introduce a statewide assessment system that does not rely on a single test has been introduced each legislative session, but has not passed. (See article this issue on Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child.)


The House bill to authorize local diplomas is 5227.