MCAS Alert September 2000
FairTest / CARE (Coalition
for Authentic Reform in Education)
MCAS: Making the Massachusetts
Dropout Crisis Worse
“I think a lot of people are going to
drop out if they fail this test. If they feel they’re not
going to make it to college, why bother trying?”
- Lacy Langevin, New Bedford High School, Class of 2003
“We’ll have a graduating class of
- Crissy Rodrigues, New Bedford High School, Class of 2003
A cloud hangs over many Massachusetts students.
Beginning with the Class of 2003, all students must pass the state’s
high stakes test - MCAS - in order to graduate. Based on patterns
emerging from other states, Massachusetts dropout rates - already
too high - are about to get worse. With 33% of the state’s
Latino students and 24% of the state’s African American students
entering ninth grade at risk for dropping out before graduation,
many schools and districts now face a crisis of growing proportions.
Massachusetts dropout patterns paint a picture of growing gaps
between the educational “haves” and “have nots.”
Those who face the greatest challenges in life are increasingly
at risk of leaving school with less formal schooling.
High-stakes testing betrays the most vulnerable
students in the Commonwealth. Far from fixing the problem of students
who graduate without skills, linking MCAS scores to graduation
threatens to push the most vulnerable students out of school altogether.
As MCAS policies narrow opportunity for individual students, they
also jeopardize the future welfare of students’ communities.
What do we know about the Massachusetts
dropout picture in the era of MCAS?
Higher dropout rates are a predictable consequence
of high stakes testing. African American, Latino, and urban students,
already dramatically over-represented among students who both
drop out and fail MCAS, bear the greatest cost of such testing.
As MCAS testing fuels higher grade retention rates, students
are already dropping out earlier in their high school years,
with dropout numbers rising in the middle grades.
While students already at risk are most endangered, many good
students who work hard, pass their courses, and aspire to post-secondary
education - but who fail MCAS - will join the ranks of school
As more students leave school with less education, and as fewer
reenroll in school, entire communities will need to address the
needs of a growing population of young adults whose levels of
educational attainments exclude them from many employment and
While MCAS drives more students out of school, lack of state
funding and the absence of leadership for dropout prevention
constitute an abandonment of the state’s most vulnerable
students and their schools.
When large numbers of students already conclude
that “school is not for me,” what are the chances that
the threat of withholding a diploma will bully similarly vulnerable
students into higher test scores and turn them into “graduates
Widening gaps, growing
In the 1998-99 school year, 9,188 Massachusetts
students dropped out of school. According to the Massachusetts
Department of Education’s annual reports, “Dropout Rates
in Massachusetts Public Schools,” this is the highest number
of students dropping out since 1993. Overall, the Department of
Education (DOE) projects that 14% of the Class of 2002 will drop
out before graduation.
Multi-year trends are clear: As those students most likely to
attend schools with fewest resources for learning encounter a
policy that requires particular MCAS scores for graduation, many
will turn away from school earlier in their high school careers.
Analysis of data available in DOE reports highlights a growing
problem for the state overall and particular districts.
African American and Latino students are dramatically
over-represented among dropouts in Massachusetts. Although only
17% of Massachusetts students in grades 9-12 are Latino or African
American, 40% of those dropping out of school are Latino or African
American. In 1998-99, Latino students made up 9% of all the state’s
students enrolled in grades 9-12 but
represented 24% of all dropouts. African American students made
up 8% of students enrolled in grades 9-12 but comprised 16% of
Among students who drop out, the proportion of Latino and African
American students is growing. Although the population of Latino
and African American students in Massachusetts high schools has
consistently remained at 17% for four years, the percentage of
Latino and African American students represented in the dropout
population has increased. In 1995-96 and 1996-97, Latino and African
American students already comprised 34% of all dropouts. This
percentage rose to 36% in 1997-98. By 1999, 40% of the dropouts
were Latino and African American.
Among students who drop out, the proportion of students dropping
out with less than a 9th grade education is increasing. In 1995-96,
1996-97, and 1997-98, 23% of dropouts left school in 9th grade.
By 1999, 25% of the state’s dropouts came from the ninth
grade. The state does not include the number of students dropping
out before reaching high school in its official reports. However,
data obtained for particular high risk urban schools indicate
growing numbers of students are leaving school with less than
a ninth grade education.
The percentage of 9th grade dropouts who reenroll in school is
declining. Students who leave school in ninth grade are increasingly
out of school for good. In 1995-96, 21% of 9th grade dropouts
reenrolled in school; in 1996-97, 15% reenrolled; in 1997-98,
16% reenrolled. By 1999, only 14% of 9th graders who dropped out
reenrolled in school.
Students from urban districts comprise a disproportionate number
of the state’s high school dropouts, and the percentage of
dropouts from a small number of urban communities is growing.
Boston, Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, Lowell, and Lawrence
together consistently enroll 15% of all the state’s high
schools students. In 1996-97, 32% of all dropouts came from these
districts; 1997-98, 35% of all dropouts from grades 9, 10, 11,
and 12 came from these districts. By 1999, 39% of all dropouts
came from these six districts. Of all the 1999 dropouts, 18.4%
came from Boston alone, up from 15% in 1996. Half (51%) of Massachusetts
dropouts now come from only 14 districts, mostly urban.
As thousands of students receive “Failing”
MCAS scores, the “holding power” schools offer the most
vulnerable students is stretched to the breaking point. In the
face of dwindling hope they will pass MCAS, fewer dropouts will
return to school. With no state resources available for dropout
prevention, entire communities inherit a set of social problems
that persist for years to come.
Faced with “Failing” MCAS scores, many good students
who play by the rules, pass their courses, and contribute to their
schools begin to doubt their academic identity and ability to
complete high school, let alone post-secondary education.
Allyson is 16, an energetic sports-lover
and B+ student at her local high school, with a special drive
to succeed in school. “My brother dropped out, and my sister,
too. I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from
high school,” she says.
By all accounts, Allyson will realize her
dream and graduate in 2002 with an admirable academic and extracurricular
record. Enrolled in her school’s “high level” classes
in English and History in her sophomore year, she earned “A”s
on specific assignments and maintained an overall “B+”
average. A passionate athlete, she is a disciplined runner. A
regular volunteer at her local shelter for homeless adults, she
also works at the local shopping mall every other weekend and
during the summer. She aims for a college degree and imagines
herself as an entrepreneur, managing her own day care center or
auto repair business.
Allyson has taken MCAS twice, in eighth
and tenth grades. Despite her record as a good student, she says,
“I thought about dropping out around the time we took MCAS
[in May 2000]. If the test counted for me to graduate, like it’s
going to this year, I probably would have. But I knew if I could
just get through those hours of testing, it would be over, and
I wouldn’t have to think about it again.”
Although her MCAS scores will not “count”
for graduation, Allyson takes MCAS very seriously. Three months
into her ninth grade, Allyson received her grade 8 scores: “Needs
Improvement” (230) in English, “Failing” (200)
in Math. That year, her school assigned her and others who had
“failed” in eighth grade to daily “MCAS classes”
where each quarter’s curriculum focused on a different section
of the MCAS. Allyson put a lot of faith in these classes: She
says, “I worked so hard for my MCAS classes, I spent a lot
of time in the library, hoping to do well on the test.” As
of September 2000, she has not yet received her scores, but she
says, “I’m fairly certain that I failed at least one
Allyson is thankful that her class is not
the first for whom MCAS scores will “count” toward graduation.
“A lot of students who don’t pass MCAS are going to
drop out next year,” she predicts. As for her classmates,
she says, “MCAS makes students think they are stupid.”
Do high stakes tests motivate
In a major report published by the American Educational Research
Association, researchers Thomas Kellaghan, George Madaus, and
Anastasia Raczek (1996) asked the questions: Do high-stakes tests
motivate all students? and What do tests motivate students to
do? They found that high-stakes testing can actually undermine
motivation, especially for students who already have a tenuous
hold on schooling. Even for motivated students, examinations may
not lead to the desirable outcomes - higher levels of achievement
and problem-solving, intrinsic moti- vation, general competence,
or self-determination - that are key to nurturing an informed
citizenry and a skilled workforce. Good students we interviewed
around the state say they value school. Eighth or ninth grade
was the “best year ever” for some. Still, many see MCAS
as a “mental block” that some believe will be difficult
to surmount. Some believe that MCAS is “a plan to stop city
kids from going to college.” Many see MCAS as a “set
up to tell you you’re stupid.”
Sylvie belongs to the Massachusetts Class
of 2003, the first class required to pass MCAS before
graduating. Friendly and reserved at the same time, Sylvie describes
herself as serious, hardworking, and creative, both in and outside
of school. She sings in her church chorus, attending rehearsals
faithfully, and she volunteers at her church convention.
Sylvie has consistently had a “B+”
grade average in school. She loves to read, and her favorite book
is the award-winning Push. In eighth grade, she won her school’s
award for good grades and behavior. In 9th grade, her grades improved
further. She cites her math skills as a particular strength, and
her report card shows “A”s in both Math and English.
Still, Sylvie was not overly confident about
MCAS, and in eighth grade, she regularly stayed after school to
attend the MCAS prep classes her favorite teacher offered. Despite
her effort, she scored “Needs Improvement” in English
and “low Fail” in Math. She now worries about how she
will fare when MCAS “counts.” Describing testing as
“horrible because it’s long and confusing,” she
says, “College students do well on these questions.”
In light of her MCAS scores, she believes her teachers now see
her in terms of what she does not know rather than what she does
know. “Teachers always liked me,” she says, “But
MCAS made us look stupid. Most of the things I learned weren’t
on the MCAS.” “I’m afraid that I won’t graduate,”
she adds. “I don’t know what you have to know to do
well. MCAS made me want to drop out.”
The MCAS dilemma: “Feel
stupid” or leave
Good students we interviewed understand
that the lack of a diploma is a disaster. Still, many who have
already failed MCAS once do not view the “opportunity”
to repeat that failure as a strong motivator for working harder.
Given the choice of retaking a test that makes
them “feel stupid” and the prospect of repeated humiliating
failures, many students are likely to dismiss the possibility
of passing “some day” and bow out of testing - and school
- altogether. Predicting the reactions of classmates who fail,
one tenth grader says, “Some [students] will stay, but one
day they’re going to give up.” Another reports, “A
lot of kids are going to get discouraged. Some will keep trying,
but a lot will struggle to get to school.” One says, “I’ll
go back to Barbados. I’ll get my diploma there.” Nor
do students we interviewed have much faith in retesting. Indeed,
testing conditions they have already encountered encourage neither
hope or effort: “Everyone’s in the cafeteria bunched
together on cold chairs. You can’t do your best that way,”
explain students from one Boston high school.
Policy makers have sold MCAS as a necessary
“stick” to get students to work hard and take school
seriously. But contrary to policy rhetoric, for a portion of students
who are already working hard, MCAS is as likely to drive them
away from school as to motivate them to work harder.
The predictable push-out
consequences of high-stakes testing
The Massachusetts dropout problem is no puzzle.
Reporting findings from a major national longitudinal database,
University of Wisconsin researchers Gary Wehlage and Robert Rutter
(1986) have emphasized, “The process of becoming a dropout
is complex because the act of rejecting an institution as fundamental
to the society as school must also be accompanied by the belief
that the institution has rejected the person.” Repeating
a grade, punitive attendance practices, school exclusion, and
labeling and placement in low-track classes are among the school
experiences that contribute to a student’s belief that “school
is not for me.”
High-stakes testing also sabotages schools’
“holding power,” especially in schools enrolling large
numbers of vulnerable students. Researchers from the National
Board for Educational Testing and Public Policy (Clarke, Haney,
& Madaus, 2000) summarize these correlations:
Nine of the ten states with the highest dropout rates in the country
tie test scores to decisions about graduation. In contrast, none
of the ten states with the lowest dropout rates have such a policy.
Data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88)
indicates that high-stakes testing in grade 8 contributes to higher
dropout rates before tenth grade among students attending schools
with proportionately higher numbers of low-income students.
In Florida, a study of students’ tenth, eleventh, and twelfth
grade records found that the likelihood of dropping out increased
significantly among students with moderate grades (1.5-2.5 on
a 4-point scale) who failed the state’s graduation test.
Likewise, an exhaustive study of Texas enrollment
data over 20 years found that disparities in grade progression
and graduation were exacerbated just prior to and throughout the
years of testing for graduation in that state (Haney, 2000). Specifically:
During the first year of Texas graduation testing in 1991, the
proportion of students progressing from ninth grade to graduation
on time declined dramatically, a drop 50% greater for African
American and Latino students than for white students. Although
white students have recovered “normal” pre-testing progression
rates, African American and Latino students have not done so,
leaving wider gaps in educational attainment between white students
and African American and Latino students. Sixth graders in Texas
are now less likely to reach grade 12 than in the years prior
to high stakes testing; only 70% of African American and Latino
sixth graders do so.
Overall, research suggests that high-stakes
testing policies set the stage for higher dropout rates. Among
vulnerable students in particular, high-stakes testing may exert
a push-out effect so that students who would otherwise be expected
to complete school instead experience greater chances of leaving
without a diploma.
The coming “train wreck:”
Asleep at the switch
Despite foreseeable increases in dropout rates,
the Massachusetts DOE has failed to take even the most basic steps
to anticipate, monitor, and address the impact of MCAS on the
state’s dropout problem, especially in relation to the state’s
most vulnerable students.
State leadership is lacking to address the
coming “train wreck.” The Massachusetts Department
of Education has no staff person responsible for leading dropout
prevention efforts at the state level.
The Department of Education’s budget provides no funding
directed toward dropout prevention. Funding for “remediation”
is no substitute for support for reforms and programs designed
specifically to lower dropout rates.
The Massachusetts DOE’s dropout reports
are inadequate for monitoring the impact of MCAS on the state’s
most vulnerable students.
Massachusetts has not reported dropout data
for special education students since 1994-95.
Massachusetts does not report dropout rates for students learning
English as a second language and has never done so.
Massachusetts does not report dropout numbers for students who
drop out of school before reaching ninth grade. These students
are not counted in official dropout reports.
In the absence of dropout data disaggregated
for the most vulnerable groups, including students with disabilities,
students who are learning English as a second language, and students
who turn 16 in the middle grades, the legislature and community
cannot assess the impact of MCAS on dropout trends in Massachusetts.
In the era of high-stakes testing, the DOE
must assume responsibility for addressing, reporting, and monitoring
state and district dropout rates in a manner that fully accounts
for the dropout problem statewide and in individual communities.
The state should immediately suspend the policy
of linking MCAS scores to high school graduation. States, districts,
and schools make choices regarding the policies and practices
they adopt. To choose current policy is to choose higher dropout
The state must renew its commitment to dropout
prevention. The state should ensure that leadership responsibility
is assigned within the Department of Education to develop an overall
dropout prevention strategy, allocate funds for programs and technical
assistance targeted to districts with weak holding power, and
improve state monitoring and reporting of dropout rates, focusing
on the impact of MCAS on the state’s most vulnerable students.
The state should begin immediately to work
with local districts and professional associations to design a
multi-faceted assessment system that will improve learning for
all students. Such a system should strengthen accountability by
monitoring students’ basic skills statewide and engage learning
by promoting local approaches grounded in real student work. (See
CARE’s proposal for an Authentic Accountability System at
Clarke, M., Haney, W., Madaus, G. (2000). High Stakes Testing
and High School Completion. NBETPP Statements 1(3). Chestnut Hill:
Boston College, Center for the Study of Testing.
Kellaghan, T., Madaus, G., and Raczek, A.
(1996). The Use of External Examinations to Improve Motivation.
Washington, DC: American Educational Research Assoc.
Haney, W. (2000). The Myth of the Texas Miracle
in Education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 8, No.
Wehlage, G.G. and Rutter, R. (1986). Dropping
Out: How Much Do Schools Contribute to the Problem? Teachers College
Record 87 (3): Spring: 374-392.
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