Raising of MCAS bar is weighed

The Boston Globe 4/30/2003

By C. Kalimah Redd, Globe Correspondent,

As the first senior class required to pass the MCAS exam prepares for graduation, state education officials are considering raising the passing grade for the exam.

State Education Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education chairman James Peyser said the passing grade needs to be raised to keep the test challenging, given that a high proportion of students are passing it on the first try. How much the scores would be raised is not clear.

''We are getting to a place where I think this discussion ought to happen,'' said Driscoll, speaking before the board of education yesterday. No decision on the matter would be made before the fall, he said.

Students must score at least 220 on the math and English portion to graduate. Ninety-one percent of the class of 2003 have passed the MCAS, either on a first attempt or a retest. Already, 84 percent of the class of 2004 passed on their first try last spring.

Peyser said as students continue to meet the standard, the state is challenged to make the exam meaningful.

But Steven Backman, a Boston public school parent who opposes passage of the MCAS test as a graduation requirement, disagreed. He said raising the bar now would only increase the stigma attached to students who did not pass the exam.

''[It's saying] not only did you not pass, but we think the test is still too easy,'' he said. ''Imagine how you would feel.''

Backman also criticized recent cuts in funds provided to districts to help students prepare for the exam. He reiterated his belief that at least 95 percent of the students in Boston should pass the MCAS before it becomes a graduation requirement.

''It makes me very sad to see that not only are they persisting, but they want to make it worse,'' Backman said.

Also yesterday, the board unanimously approved rules to govern the new English immersion programs, a key step to comply with a voter-approved referendum question last year that ended bilingual education.

All non-English-speaking students will attend one-year, all-English classes before being moved into regular courses, under the new law.

The board also approved new licensing criteria for teachers in the new English immersion classes. Peyser said many of the teachers are licensed as English as a second language or transitional bilingual education instructors, whose primary focus is language skills. The new English immersion teaching method will require teachers to be proficient in the foreign language as well as regular instruction. Under the new method, teachers will not be allowed to use the child's native language, except to correct that child or clarify a point.

''It lays the groundwork for teacher preparations and training toward structured programs,'' Peyser said.

He said teachers will receive training at workshops over the summer to prepare for the new licensing, which has yet to be fully established and won't take effect until 2004.

Malborough schools superintendent Rose Marie Boniface said her district approved a new English immersion program for its 850 students who are non-English speakers. Most of them speak Spanish and Portuguese.

Boniface said she is optimistic that the students will benefit from the new instruction, but she is concerned that many will not learn English within a year because of their varied abilities.

''The potential is there for children to get frustrated,'' Boniface said. ''I think the perception in the public was that this program will be cheaper and quicker. But when you are down to instruction, I don't think that the perception will be borne out in reality.''


C. Kalimah Redd can be reached at kredd@globe.com.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 4/30/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.