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Lopsided Scholarships

Three cheers for Eileen McNamara.

Using a racially diverse, urban high school as a backdrop to tout a new state scholarship program that primarily benefits white students is cynical enough. Using MCAS test results as the sole basis for awarding free state college tuition just might amount to consumer fraud.

Marketed seven years ago as a diagnostic tool, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam is now being sold as a crystal ball. Yet another step toward the canonization of standardized testing, the use of MCAS results as an exclusive determinant of merit scholarships not only devalues broader educational experiences, it distorts the original intent of the exam.

At its inception, the MCAS test was to be a tool to gauge a student's mastery of math, science, and English at a moment in time. It was to be a yardstick against which educators could measure, and then correct, the quality of the curriculum, the teaching and learning from classroom to classroom, from school to school, from district to district. Seven years later, MCAS is being peddled as a predictor of a student's future success.

"The Adams scholarship is based on merit and is open to everyone regardless of whether they are black or white, rich or poor, from a suburban school or an urban setting," Romney said on Friday at Brockton High School, where he announced the first recipients of the scholarships named for John and Abigail Adams.

Romney could not have chosen a less representative school in which to make the disingenuous claim that MCAS is the great leveler of race and class in Massachusetts. Twenty-five percent of the 199 scholarship recipients at Brockton High are black and 8 percent are Hispanic but those numbers are not replicated in large urban school districts statewide. A program aimed at rewarding the top 25 percent of MCAS scorers in each school district delivered scholarships to only 18 percent of seniors in Boston, 13 percent in Lowell and Worcester, 7 percent in Springfield, and 5 percent in Lawrence.

The numbers only hint at the deeper problem of unequal access to educational opportunity in Massachusetts, 11 years after passage of the Education Reform Act. Earlier this year, after a 78-day trial featuring 114 witnesses testifying about educational disparities in Massachusetts, Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford found that low-income minority students were unfairly disadvantaged by the current educational funding system.

In her report, as fact-finder for the state Supreme Judicial Court, Botsford noted that higher education was no longer a luxury. "It has become more and more apparent that in the United States today, individuals need to receive an education that will enable them to pursue degrees beyond high school or at least excellent, technologically competent, vocational education. In the focus districts, too many students currently are not receiving what they need to pursue those paths," she wrote.

"The commissioner has set the date of 2014 for students in the Commonwealth to become 'proficient' in English and Language Arts and math. . . . The associate commissioner of education for school finance and support suggested that it may not be fair to begin assessing whether the current system of education reform is successful until all districts in the Commonwealth have operated at least 100 percent of their foundation budget for a full cycle of kindergarten through 12th grade -- the year 2012. That timetable is just too long."

A governmental bureaucracy that is willing to give itself another decade to provide a public education that passes constitutional muster to all students in Massachusetts is in no position to judge which of them deserve what opportunities for higher education. That the 13,000 John and Abigail Adams Scholarship winners announced with such fanfare by the governor last week are disproportionately white and economically advantaged should be no surprise. What it should be is an embarrassment.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.
Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

— Eileen McNamara
Boston Globe





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