Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/346/north/Chasing_math_s_magic_number_220+.shtml

Chasing math's magic number: 220
Bilingual students face MCAS deadline
Globe Staff, 12/12/2002
By Brenda J. Buote,

Eat breakfast. Relax. Take your time.

Pearls of wisdom from a teacher who has done all she can to prepare bilingual students at Everett High School for the MCAS exam. Her students have another strategy.

''Pray,'' said Maria Casas, deadpan.

Her friends respond with bemused banter and quiet, nervous chuckles.

But, they know, this is no laughing matter.

Today, Casas and several thousand students across the Commonwealth will try once again to pass the math portion of the MCAS test. Many will pray. Pray for a 220, the passing score on the 10th-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive
Assessment System exam.

Statewide, roughly 12,000 students in the class of 2003 - the first facing the MCAS graduation requirement - have yet to pass both the English and math portions of the test, as mandated by state educators. About 60 percent of those who failed came within a few points of a passing score. Casas was among them.

Three times, she has taken the math portion of the MCAS exam. Three times, she has scored 218. Five questions stand between her and a diploma, five questions that could shape her future. Casas wants to be a dentist.

''I haven't applied to college yet,'' Casas said. ''I'm waiting to see what happens, you know, see how I do on the MCAS this time.''

Casas, like roughly 200 of the 1,568 students at Everett High School, is an immigrant. She moved with her mother from Colombia to this working-class enclave about four years ago. During her first year here, she was taught all of her core subjects in Spanish, her native language. After that, she chose to transition into classes taught in English.

''I'm worried for kids like Maria,'' said Barbara Sargent, a bilingual Spanish teacher at Everett High. ''She could have continued to take her classes in her native language, but she opted out of the bilingual program so she could learn English
faster. English immersion - that was very important to her. But in her struggle to acquire English, her math skills may have suffered.''

Jorge Pineda, 18, another senior at the school, can relate to Casas's plight. He, too, is an immigrant. He, too, opted out of the bilingual program after one year. And, he, too, has yet to pass the math portion of the MCAS exam. Both Casas
and Pineda have passed the English portion of the test - perhaps as a result of the difficult decision they made to leave the bilingual program.

''These kids, they were ahead of their time,'' said Sargent. ''They should be proud of themselves, proud of what they've achieved, even though they have this black cloud - MCAS - over their heads, because they could still be in bilingual classes and struggling with English.''

In the future, students like Casas and Pineda may not have a choice. Last month, voters eliminated statewide bilingual education programs. In a landslide vote, they passed Question 2, which replaced bilingual programs with all-English classes. Governor-elect Mitt Romney supported the change.

However, Representative Peter J. Larkin, cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Education Committee, has submitted a bill that would allow schools to choose bilingual programs if they agree to subject themselves to stricter state scrutiny. If the legislation is passed, it would amount to a repeal of the ballot initiative.

For Casas, the debate on Beacon Hill is like white noise. It's something she's aware of, but it hasn't captured her attention. She's been focusing her efforts on circles, squares, and triangles. Although she's only required to attend MCAS remediation classes two or three times a week, she's getting help every day. She failed geometry last year, and although she improved her grades this year - last quarter she got a ''C'' in math - she knows she needs extra help when it comes to
calculating the angles of a right triangle.

In all, there are 37 seniors at Everett High who have yet to pass either the math or English portion of the MCAS, or both. Of those students, six are enrolled in special needs classes. For 17 of the remaining 31 students, English is a second language, according to Thomas Stella, assistant principal of the school. He noted that at least six of the bilingual students, including Casas and Pineda, have asked state education officials to waive the MCAS requirement and allow them to graduate. The state may grant waivers to students who are very close to passing the MCAS, have grades similar to those of students who have passed the test, have attended MCAS tutoring, and posted high attendance marks. Casas hasn't missed a day of school in three years.

Statewide, about 44.8 percent of those students in the class of 2003 who have yet to pass the MCAS are minorities; 13.2 percent speak limited English; and more than 30 percent are students in special-needs programs.

MCAS critics, who have fought the graduation requirement since the test's debut in 1998, said such statistics bolster their belief that the exam is flawed.

''Students not passing MCAS deserve a diploma based on their individual school accomplishments, rather than as determined by scores on a technically flawed test,'' said Boston-based education researcher Anne Wheelock, an MCAS critic. ''Studies show MCAS is a poor indicator of present accomplishment, and a poor predictor of future success. This test is certainly not going to tell us whether Ms. Casas, for example, would be a competent dentist, and yet she might be denied access to a college education if she does not pass the MCAS.''

Eight students who have failed the MCAS test required for graduation are suing state education officials, saying the test is discriminatory and that many struggling schools have failed to teach students the material on the exam. The unidentified
student plaintiffs are minorities, disabled, speak limited English, or are vocational students. Their lawyers are seeking class-action status.

Casas is not among the student plaintiffs, but said she understands their frustration with the MCAS exam. For her, nothing less than a diploma will do. She rejects the notion pushed by Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll that a state-endorsed ''certificate of achievement'' would acknowledge her accomplishments.

Said Casas with a sigh: ''I don't want to take this test again, but I will if I have to. I'm praying it won't come to that.''

Brenda J. Buote can be reached at bbuote@globe.com.

This story ran on page 1 of the Globe North section on 12/12/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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