By Doug Page
Concerned that high numbers of Bay State tenth graders will fail the new version of the MCAS test -- and, as a result, not graduate high school -- Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson is offering a lifeline.
At the Oct. 24 meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Education, which oversees the state's K-12 public schools, Wulfson recommended that current eighth and ninth graders -- which will be the first two classes to take the new version of the MCAS test when they are in tenth grade -- be graded using the standards and scores of the old test so a higher percentage pass and, as a result, qualify for their high school diploma.
The state's 1993 Education Reform law requires that all public high school students take the MCAS in tenth grade. Students passing the three tests (English, math, and science) qualify for their diploma as long as they also meet any other graduation requirements set by their local high school.
The impetus for this proposal were the results of this past spring's new MCAS new test, nicknamed "MCAS 2.0." Less than 50% of the students in grades 3-8 taking the new test were rated as Meeting or Exceeding Expectations, a significant drop from previous years.
"Ninth graders are getting their scores today, or this week, from last spring's next-generation MCAS test, and there's going to be a lot of students who are going to be falling into that Partially Meeting Expectations category, and many of those students may have gotten Proficient on past versions of the MCAS," Wulfson said. "We don't want them freaking out and saying, 'Oh my God, you've changed the rules on me. I'm not going to pass my high school competency determination,'" and fail to qualify to graduate from high school.
In previous BOE meetings, it has been suggested that the new version of the high school MCAS will be more challenging previous versions. DESE Spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis says 80% to 90% percent of sophomores have passed the previous versions of the English, math, and science tests to qualify for their diploma.
"[Wulfson] is addressing people's fears that [the passing rate] could drop on the next-generation MCAS, depending on where the 'passing' mark for high school graduation is set," Reis said. "He's recommending that the passing bar remain relatively low on the next-generation MCAS for the Classes of 2021 and 2022."
The BOE has yet to set the passing score for the new version of the tests.
"Specifically for the Classes of 2021 and 2022, the current ninth graders and current eighth graders, the proposal is that we would set the passing score for those two classes at a level commensurate with the current passing score on the legacy MCAS test," Wulfson said.
BOE Vice Chairman James Morton called Wulfson's proposal "a great idea," saying an interim standard for the two classes gives DESE and the BOE a chance to learn from their experiences with the new high school test.
BOE Member Michael Moriarty said he was "fully supportive" of the proposal.
The BOE vote is expected to vote on Wulfson's proposal at its Nov. 28 meeting.