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
''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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page 1 of the Globe North section on 12/12/2002. © Copyright
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.