As teenagers know all too well, the MCAS exams stand in the way of a high school diploma. As it turns out, students who do well on the standardized tests stand to do better in college, too.
First-year students at Massachusetts public colleges who scored well on the high school math and English MCAS exams earn higher grades and more course credits than students with lower scores, and they are more likely to stay in school, a new study by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has found.
The report, which for the first time tracked how Massachusetts high school graduates fared in college, offers evidence that performance on the high-stakes tests is linked to college readiness and bolsters the case that the state's academic standards are helping to prepare students for college.
The preliminary study, which tracked more than 18,000 high school students who graduated in 2005, are the first findings from education researchers who used a $2 million grant to merge the state's K-12 and higher education databases. A more comprehensive report is due this fall, and the higher education board ultimately plans to distribute reports to individual high schools tracking how their students fare in college.
Patricia F. Plummer, higher education chancellor, said the strong correlation between MCAS scores and college performance showed the value of a demanding college-track curriculum and was a wake-up call to students who choose not to take math and English classes throughout high school.
"Teachers need to be saying to students, even those who pass MCAS, if you don't take this class now, you're going to have to take it in college, and not for credit," Plummer said.
The link between high school and college expectations supports the state's push to set strict standards, said Paul Reville , president of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy . Since 2003, high school students have been required to pass the state exams to graduate.
The 10th-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests have four performance levels: advanced, proficient, needs improvement, and failing.
Students who scored advanced in English earned a 3.0 grade point average as freshmen, while those who scored at the next highest level, proficient, earned a 2.7. Those who scored a needs improvement, averaged a 2.4.
Some said the findings were predictable and showed only that brighter, harder-working students were more likely to succeed at college, not that the tests were improving education.
"I don't think anyone is surprised that students who do better on the MCAS exam do better in college," said Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr. , a Medford Democrat who has filed legislation to stop denying students diplomas based solely on MCAS scores. "That means nothing in terms of producing better-prepared graduates overall."
But Megan Chapa , a junior from Dudley who has a 4.0 grade point average at Framingham State College, said the "all MCAS, all the time" preparation she received in high school helped her make the transition to college.
"I was ready," she said.
Sara Cameron , a 21-year-old Framingham State senior, grudgingly agreed.
"As much as I might have cursed it, I do think it helped," she said.
But Danny Abbott , 19, who received a scholarship for his high MCAS scores while at Bellingham High School, said the test wasn't a factor. "I was more focused on the SATs," he said.
The study probably represents the first attempt to track the impact of exit exams such as MCAS on college performance, said Jack Jennings , president of the Center on Education Policy.
Students who needed improvement on the MCAS earned eight fewer credits as freshmen than advanced students, researchers found. Lower-scoring students were also far more likely to drop out.
They were also more likely to take remedial classes in college, prompting educators to urge high schools to demand more of its students. "We are still graduating students with eighth- and ninth-grade skills," said Alison Fraser , director of the Great Schools Campaign at Mass Insight Education . "Students who pass MCAS think they've made it, but we know they haven't."
Plummer said students should be required to take four years of math and English and three years of science.
Westwood's schools superintendent, John Antonucci , said MCAS has helped improve education, but passing it is only the first step to preparing for college.
"Our goal is to get kids ready for college," he said. "By no means is MCAS the end game."