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This is improvement?

In releasing the latest MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) retest results Monday, the state Department of Education (DOE) crowed that 96 percent of the class of 2004 had passed the exam in time to graduate — up from 95 percent of the class of 2003 — including 88 percent of black and 85 percent of Hispanic students. The news was so good, Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll told reporters, that it may be time to raise the passing score from 220 to 230.

Not so fast. The DOE calculates those percentages based on the number of students who were still enrolled with their class only as of this spring. Thus, those who previously dropped out, transferred, or were held back — like the Hispanic students stuck in the "ninth-grade bubble" — simply disappear from the statistics (see "Adios, Escuela," News and Features, March 12).

Another arguably more meaningful way to determine a class’s graduation rate is to base the percentage on the class’s size when it entered ninth grade. In fact, that’s exactly how the DOE itself measured the rate for its own "Trend Analysis of High School Enrollment, Dropout, and Grade Retentions Over Time" study in October 2002, which covered the classes of 1996 though 2002 (www.doe.mass.edu/infoservices/reports/c03_analysis.html). In that study, the graduation rate was found to be fairly steady, hovering each year around 75 percent. For example, for the class of 2002, 74,668 students were enrolled in ninth grade in the fall of 1998, and 56,930 students graduated in the spring of 2002 — 76.2 percent. Although not all the year’s graduates started with that ninth-grade class, transfers and other changes tend to remain steady year-to-year.

The accompanying chart, compiled by the Phoenix from the DOE’s statistics, updates the October 2002 DOE study by applying the department’s own former (and now discarded) methodology, extending the analysis through the class of ’05, and including racial breakdowns. Looked at this way, the figures seem to belie the DOE’s upbeat claim about the class of 2004’s ability to pass the MCAS and thus graduate. Our chart shows that a high-school diploma remains out of reach for a shocking percentage of black and Hispanic students in Massachusetts: note the stark change beginning with the class of 2003.

Based on the Phoenix’s analysis, when the MCAS requirement went into effect with that class, the graduation rate (determined as a percentage of ninth-grade-class size) for white students dipped slightly, but quickly returned to previous levels. Rates for black and Hispanic students, however, plummeted as soon as the MCAS requirement went into effect and have not recovered.

The DOE contends that the way it now calculates graduation rates offers a more accurate measure, because there’s no way to know why a particular class shrank over the four years — how many students left the state, transferred to private schools, or took jobs, for instance. But spokesperson Heidi Perlman could offer no other explanation for the dramatic change in our numbers beginning with the class of 2003 when the MCAS requirement was instituted. Nevertheless, she strenuously rejects the suggestion that minority children are dropping out in larger numbers. "We do not believe that MCAS is driving people out," she says.

The DOE press release touting the retest results also claims "a significant closure of the achievement gap" based on the fact that many black and Hispanic students have been able to pass the MCAS via multiple retests. (Students have five opportunities to retake the exam.) But while they’ve been taking remedial MCAS-prep classes in their junior and senior years, the kids who passed on the first try — disproportionately white — were getting further ahead in college-prep courses. "While everybody else is doing physics and calculus, they’re still doing algebra," says Jeanne McGuire, executive director of METCO. That affects who gets college admissions and scholarships, she says.

McGuire also notes that a disproportionate number of minority students gets expelled, held back, or otherwise disrupted in their education before even reaching ninth grade. Minority students who do make it that far, however, appear even less likely to earn a diploma four years later than they did 11 years ago, when Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Law that was meant to help them.

Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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