Argument

With our 1991 publication Every Child a Winner!, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) presented the Commonwealth with a challenge to elevate standards of academic achievement for all students. Our members, concerned about the poor preparation of graduates from the state’s public schools, proposed a set of dramatic reforms that ultimately became the foundation of the historic Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Since the passage of the act, our role has been to monitor the implementation of reform in the interest of realizing our original dream of a school system which would deliver quality education to each and every child.

The standards-driven system that we advocated is now on its way to becoming a reality. As the state begins the implementation of the accountability phase of reform, we must issue a caution: Before implementing the “high stakes” dimension of the student assessment system–that is, before withholding any student’s diploma on the basis of an inability to pass the series of tests which make up part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)–we must make sure that we have provided all students with a reasonable opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills embodied in the new, high standards.

The architecture of reform, especially the curriculum frameworks and the corresponding MCAS tests, have been slower in development than the framers of the Education Reform Act anticipated. It therefore stands to reason that the timelines for student achievement of learning goals must be modified accordingly. Some curriculum frameworks are still in development, while others, previously approved by the state Board of Education, are undergoing significant revision. In some subjects, achievement targets are not yet set and teachers have not been able to decide on (or may have to change) instructional and curricular strategies. We contend that a framework should be stable in form and content for at least three to four years prior to the use of MCAS assessment with high-stakes consequences in that subject.

We believe that there is a fundamental issue of fairness involved in giving students and teachers adequate time to master the new multi-year learning standards. Adults, not children, should be the first ones to be held accountable under the new system. Policy leaders must complete and stabilize the reform architecture (i.e., finish the frameworks and demonstrate the validity and reliability of the MCAS tests), then educators and schools should be held accountable for providing students with adequate learning opportunities under the new expectations. Finally, students should then be held accountable for utilizing those opportunities to achieve higher performance. If we fail to perform these tasks in the proper sequence, not only will we be treating students unfairly, but we will precipitate a political crisis in education reform, since the public will not tolerate a process that is seen to punish large numbers of students unfairly.

Adults, not children, should be the first ones held accountable.

We cannot bring down the full weight of accountability on the children before we adults have done our job. If we proceed unfairly, we will seriously jeopardize the massive investment the Commonwealth has made in improving public education.

As the original advocates of this reform and the high standards, we have no interest in seeing the standards diluted or in ducking meaningful consequences concerning student achievement. However, we must insist that the high-stakes elements of accountability are introduced fairly and thoughtfully. Because of the delays in developing the reform architecture and the massive jump in achievement standards the Massachusetts reform demands, we have concluded that a transition period may be necessary to provide a fair and orderly move to high stakes.

The transition we envision would include:

1) Phased-in tests.The first high stakes class is the Class of 2003, now in Grade 9 and due to take the high stakes tests for the first time in about a year and a half. They will have two more opportunities to take the tests before graduating, if they do not meet passing criteria on the first try. MBAE concluded in early summer of 1999 that English Language Arts and Mathematics are the only two subject areas which have achieved sufficient stability to subject to high stakes. The Board of Education has agreed with us, setting English and Math as the only high-stakes portion of the MCAS test for the first year that has consequences for students.

With these two subjects considered the minimum acceptable, we expect that the tests for Science and Tech-nology/Engineering, History and Social Sciences, and foreign language–the other MCAS core subjects–will follow as soon as possible. During this transition, the numbers of tests will increase as they reach satisfactory maturity within the system. For each cohort, the subject matter tests carrying high-stakes consequences (i.e., passing them is a graduation requirement) must be designated well in advance of their entry into high school, so that students and their schools will know what they are being held accountable for. Ideally, if the History/Social Science framework were finalized during the current school year, students now in 7th grade would be the first to be given the MCAS history test as high stakes, in the spring of 2003, with two more chances to pass the test before their scheduled graduation in 2005.

Once all five core subjects have been defined and stable for at least four years, the transition period would be considered over and high stakes would be attached to all MCAS tests.

2) Multiple-level diplomas. We recommend several levels of state-sanctioned diplomas, such as “highest honors,” “high honors,” “honors,” and “basic.” The “basic” level would define the minimum for obtaining a Massachusetts diploma. This standard should include passing scores in English and Mathematics and, as additional tests are phased in, a failing grade in no more than one other high-stakes MCAS test. Higher-level diplomas provide a means by which students can gain state recognition for achievement above the basic level and qualify for rewards such as scholarships, Certificates of Mastery, college admission, and other kudos. These will serve as incentives for excellent performance in Grades 11 and 12, after students meet the graduation requirements.

In the first few years of high-stakes testing, it is expected that some schools and districts may have significant numbers of students who fail even these basic criteria. In these cases, we would advocate that, during the transition period only, they be allowed to graduate with a local diploma, as long as they meet local graduation criteria. This provision, though distasteful, is suggested only to prevent the chaotic situation of larger numbers of students getting turned back into Grade 12 than the school system can handle due to shortages of classrooms, teachers, and funding.

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3) Escalating passing grades. The Board of Education has set the “cut score,” which defines the “passing grade” for high stakes as just above the “Failing” category. This standard is an appropriate beginning benchmark; setting it higher would only exacerbate the problem of students failing to meet graduation criteria in the early years of high-stakes testing. However, as the system matures, and experience with the MCAS tests grows, the Board of Education should gradually move the standard to a higher cut score, thereby raising the overall graduation standards. Once the transition period is over and the system has reached a stable, mature state, no more escalation would be needed or desirable.

Setting the passing grade higher would only cause more students to fail.

The transition mechanism we suggest is one approach to the gradual introduction of high stakes in education reform. The Board of Education has adopted some of our ideas and is exploring other potential strategies for doing the same thing. We applaud their timely action in making key decisions concerning graduation requirements, including the definition of “passing,” and how to handle the high-stakes challenge.

>John C. Rennie is chairman and S. Paul Reville executive vice chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.