"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rejecting the Economic Profiling of Exit Exams

I love the smell of burning bubble-in answer sheets in the morning!

A couple of battles turning in favor of humane sanity? The New York Times and the Boston Globe both have pieces on the outbreak of rationality. Here is the column from the Boston Globe by Eileen McNamara:

Public resistance, long overdue, had to begin somewhere. Why not New Bedford?

On Monday night, the New Bedford School Committee became the first in Massachusetts to abandon the pretense that high-stakes testing is a cure-all for the problems that continue to plague public education in the Commonwealth.

The city said no to a punitive state law that prohibits the awarding of high school diplomas to otherwise accomplished students who do not pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. In a unanimous vote, the School Committee said students who meet all other requirements deserve a diploma, not the demeaning certificate of attendance that state law now says must be conferred on anyone who fails one or both of the English and math tests.

In a nod to the state's authority, New Bedford school officials agreed to continue issuing state-approved diplomas to those who pass the MCAS. Those who do not will receive what the committee called a general high school diploma, an acknowledgment that those students did not merely warm a chair at school but successfully completed their course work. Why not recognize that achievement?

Predictably, the emperor took umbrage at being told he had no clothes. Governor Mitt Romney threatened yesterday to withhold $103 million in state funds unless school officials in New Bedford reversed themselves. ''To say that we should graduate kids who haven't met the basic standards of reading and math is a gross mistake," Romney warned. ''It is a vote of no confidence in our kids."

How will withholding the bulk of the city's $112.3 million annual school budget advance the educational needs of those children? How will that encourage disheartened students to stay in school?

The vote by the New Bedford School Committee was an act of civil disobedience encouraged by Mayor Scott Lang to reopen the debate about using standardized test scores as a graduation requirement. It should not be the start of a fresh political war, but an invitation to talk seriously about the economic and racial disparities among those who pass and those who fail the MCAS tests.

It has been more than a decade since the Commonwealth began its concerted effort to reform public education. Billions of dollars and a generation of students later, MCAS has not been the great equalizer. Urban schools in low-income neighborhoods still are disproportionately represented among schools with failing scores. Why? And why is the proper response to withhold high school diplomas from the very population that needs the credential most?

Even the state Board of Education, long a bastion of support for MCAS, declined last month to raise the score needed to pass, because of doubts that enough students could hit the higher mark.

All this attention on test scores exacerbates broader problems in public education, including the alarming dropout rates among teachers, as well as students. A recent study by the National Education Association reports that half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. The reasons they cite most often? Low pay and the frustration of difficult working conditions, including the cumbersome bureaucracy and the incessant drilling required to prepare students for standardized tests.

Romney sounded in no mood yesterday for any broader discussion of the educational merits of the MCAS graduation requirement. To the contrary, he made it clear that he and the Board of Education chairman, James A. Peyser, remain committed to the prerequisite and that the board will move to withhold state aid if the New Bedford School Committee does not reverse its vote.

''New Bedford is going to take corrective action," Romney said. ''They're going to have to back down on this."

The mayor of New Bedford, for his part, is showing no sign of retreat. That leaves the high school students in the middle, waiting to see who calls whose bluff.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com
Send your email letter of support to Mayor Lang of New Bedford:

LANG for PRESIDENT!!!!!!!!!

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