BOE raises MCAS requirements

Alternatively, students who score between 220 and 240 and take a required set of courses will qualify for a high school diploma. The MTA submitted public comment on the changes prior to the the board's vote.

Comments on Proposed Amendments to Regulations 603 CMR 30.00 – MCAS Competency Determination Requirements

Submitted by Anne Wass, President, Massachusetts Teachers Association
September 29, 2006

The proposed regulations would require students to achieve a score of 240 on the mathematics and English language arts (ELA) MCAS tests starting with the class of 2009, or, in the alternative, would require students who score between 220 and 240 to fulfill the mandates of an Educational Proficiency Plan (EPP). In addition, the Board has considered a motion to sunset the EPP alternative and require scores of 240 or higher in order to graduate.

We oppose that motion, or any proposal that would absolutely require scores of 240 or higher. The impact on students would be harmful, as thousands of otherwise qualified students would be unable to graduate and drop-out rates would almost certainly rise.

The Department's own statistics tell the story.

In 2005 – the most recent year for which this analysis is available – 85 percent of all students who took MCAS passed both the ELA and math tests by receiving a score of 220 or higher on their first try. If the passing score had been set at 240 that year, only 56 percent would have passed. 

The numbers are even more troubling for low-income and minority students. Only 24 percent of African-Americans, 22 percent of Hispanics, 14 percent of English language learners, and 16 percent of students with disabilities would have passed at the 240 level.

Grade 10 test scores did increase in 2006 after having flattened out over the previous two years, but it would be foolhardy to predict rapid increases each and every year on the basis of this year's rise. Statisticians caution against reading too much into year-to-year test-score differences. For example, the 2006 Math and Verbal SAT scores actually declined in Massachusetts, even while the state's MCAS scores rose in those two subjects. While they are different tests and serve a different function, the drop in SAT scores should give policymakers pause before they extrapolate that MCAS scores can and will rise indefinitely on the basis of this year's laudable increase.

If the passing score is raised to 240, we believe that thousands of students would either drop out of school or reach the end of their senior year having passed their courses but failed the MCAS. In either case, their opportunities would be severely limited. They would be barred from attending state colleges or the University of Massachusetts, receiving federal financial aid, and joining the military. Many would find it impossible to get a decent job.

The Department of Education expressed a similar concern in its October 2005 analysis of the impact of raising the passing score to 240.  Commissioner Driscoll's memorandum to the Board of Education on Oct. 18, 2005, states in part: "[A]ny substantive increase in the passing standard might have as an unintended consequence an increase in drop-out rates."

An additional concern is that schools and districts would be under tremendous pressure to make even more cuts in time and programs than they have already made to the arts, physical education, and other subjects and activities not directly related to the mathematics and ELA MCAS tests. Some schools would feel pressure to replace project-based learning, research projects and term papers with even more test drill than currently exists. Neither of these outcomes is educationally sound.

Regarding the issue of whether students who score below 240 should have an  EPP that requires them to take a proscribed set of courses, there are too many unanswered questions for us to take a position at this time. We believe that high school students should be required to take and pass courses that prepare them for college, work and citizenship, but have several questions about how this proposal would address those needs.

What role will classroom teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators play in determining what these new requirements would entail?

How would the new requirements differ from what school districts already require for high school graduation?

Do districts have the necessary staff and funding to implement these regulations in a coherent way, and, if not, where will they obtain those resources?

Will the course-taking requirements be the same for students in a vocational/technical school program as they are for other students? If so, what impact will that have on their ability to meet their vocational education requirements?

If these regulations are adopted, the MTA, representing more than 100,000 educators in Massachusetts, should be involved in meaningful discussions with policymakers around these and related issues.