THERE ARE conflicting reports about the state of the public education system in Massachusetts. National data indicate that students are achieving at the highest levels in the country, yet the state Department of Education says that one out of every two public schools in the Commonwealth "needs improvement," and 75 percent of the middle schools and 277 public schools need yet-undefined "restructuring" to meet state MCAS standards.
The MCAS system is not working. More schools join the "needs improvement" list and more students across the state finish high school without a diploma, not because they have dropped out, but because a single measure of their accomplishment indicates that they do not deserve a diploma, despite their successes in the classroom. Last week, a group of educators from the state college and university system offered to assist in the creation of an educational assessment system that will ensure high standards and accountability, without harming students. No one argues against setting the highest goals for students, but it is time to make changes to a system that cannot withstand or appreciate the weight of its success.
Using data supplied by the state Department of Education since the MCAS graduation requirement has been in place, 16,841 public school students have completed all state-approved local graduation requirements but have been denied a high school diploma because they did not pass the test. When the Department of Education releases statistics on the class of 2008, this number will grow by roughly another 4,000 students.
We know the harm of going through life without a high school diploma. Secretary of Education Paul Reville recently told the Massachusetts Mayors Association, "There is nowhere to go without a high school diploma." These individuals will suffer an average lifetime earnings loss of more than $300,000, compared with a high school graduate. Each person without a high school diploma costs society an average of $22,449 annually in direct benefits and means-tested aid, including state-subsidized healthcare and welfare benefits. Individuals who are unable to pass the MCAS will cost society hundreds of millions of dollars in direct assistance each year, dollars that state officials cannot ignore in discussions of education policy. Each time a child does not meet the MCAS graduation requirement, it is tantamount to imposing an ever-rising silent tax on citizens.
The Education Department plans to raise the "proficiency" standards and add subjects to the test. Meanwhile, more schools are labeled as "needing improvement," and more students are failing the MCAS. In fact, 20 percent of 10th-graders failed a portion of the MCAS this year, compared with 13 percent last year.
By 2014, students in the public school system must score at a new "proficient" level to meet "federal standards," which the Education Department has defined as a score of 240 or above, 20 points higher than the current passing score of 220, which many otherwise successful high school students are unable to meet. Increasing resources are being poured into an MCAS numbers game that turns young students into high-stakes test takers rather than well-rounded, educated citizens.
Curriculums of art, music, physical education, and extracurricular activities are being gutted in pursuit of "world-class proficiency." The state has created a system that cannot produce the results it seeks, and consequently has set the stage for a collapse of public schools.
To bring individual meritocracy back to schools, diplomas should be rewarded on the basis of personal achievement. Massachusetts should award a general high school diploma to students who have met all local graduation requirements but have not passed the MCAS (the same standard for private and parochial school students); MCAS diplomas should be awarded to students who have met local requirements and passed the MCAS; and a third category of diplomas should be awarded to students who have passed the MCAS and achieved the new "proficiency" level in one or more subject areas. These two distinct "MCAS" diplomas would quickly gain prestige and create an incentive for students, while giving an opportunity to students who meet local graduation requirements. This diploma system will preserve the MCAS standard while accomplishing the purpose of improving the state's educational system in an equitable and powerful way.
Scott W. Lang is the mayor of New Bedford.