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High School Exit Exams

In June of 2003 The Boston Globe ran an article reporting on their own investigation into the results of the MCAS, Massachusetts’ recently-enacted mandatory statewide high-school exit exam. Such mandatory testing has, of course, been a primary point of contention between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ when discussing reforms of the public education system, and the Globe reporters wanted to see how it worked in practice. It was clear from the story that their expectation aligned with the standard ‘liberal’ point of view: that the results would demonstrate a bias against minorities; that, far from achieving their goal of equalizing educational opportunities between the rich and the poor, such tests would merely widen the gap, denying diplomas and opportunity to those least able to afford it. I suspect that was their intent — to counter the ‘conservative’ claims that such policies were useful in improving education.

To their credit, when what they found did not meet their expectations they wrote an honest and revelatory story about the implications of that. And to the credit of the Globe editors the story appeared on the front page.

Nonetheless, to make sure you didn’t come away feeling too good about the potential for such testing, the lead of the article was a standard sympathy story: the poor immigrant child who was denied a diploma because the test discriminated against her on the basis of poor English language skills. Oh, the unfairness of it all.

I wrote these two letters both to compliment the honesty of their investigation and to impart a different spin to their tale of woe. The first was submitted to the Globe as a commentary on the story; it was not published. The second was submitted to The San Jose Mercury News in San Jose, CA as a recommendation that they take a look at the results of the Globe story — that it might beneficially inform the debate over such testing in California. I got no reply and do not know whether they ever reported the story.

1 June 2003

Your front-page article (1 June 2003) on the MCAS was surprising, not in its conclusions but in that such a lucid and common-sense analysis would make it into the very political debate over testing.

What was not surprising, however, was the lead-in to the story: a sympathetic and condemnatory anecdote about a particular immigrant student who would not get a diploma because she had not had enough time to learn English before her time for graduation arrived. It was clear from the tone and the context that the reporters’ preference would have been for this student, and others like her, to graduate despite their performance on the MCAS — that the school system had, as a result of this stringent graduation requirement, failed them. I could not disagree more.

I agree that the school system has probably failed them — but not by refusing to grant them a diploma; rather, it has failed them by insisting that they are through with high-school merely because they have served their time and despite the fact that they can’t read and write English well enough to pass the MCAS exam. Justice would demand not an immediate — and meaningless — diploma but the opportunity for another year of intensive English instruction to overcome their deficiencies, followed by a well-earned and meaningful diploma which signified that they had, in fact, successfully completed the entirety of the high-school curriculum.

The purpose of high-school is to educate, not merely to award credentials.  The purpose of the MCAS, as with all standardized exit exams, is to verify that high-school graduates are, in fact, educated — that a diploma signifies achievement, not merely time spent sitting in a classroom.  What would be truly a disservice, to the individual students and to the community at large, is to dismiss the importance of achievement — and, therefore, of education itself — in the name of some false notion of justice.

© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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