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And a Teenager Shall Lead Them. . . .

Posted: 2003-04-13

Brittany Nickerson is a senior at Amherst Regional High School. Here are her reflections on her two-year refusal to take the MCAS. Yes, for two years she has withstood all pressures to take the test.


MCAS boycott meets her standards

Saturday, April 12, 2003 -- Editor's note: School committees in Easthampton, Northampton, South Hadley and Hampshire Regional districts have voted to award diplomas to all students who meet local graduation requirements, regardless of MCAS performance. The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee was scheduled to vote on the matter at its April 8 meeting, but the vote was postponed.

Meanwhile, Brittany Nickerson has applied to, and been accepted at, American University and George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C., New School University's Eugene Lang College in New York City and the University of California, Berkeley.

I looked toward the administrators guarding the doors that were my only passageway to freedom. "I am not taking the test," I said. "The school knows, and my parents support me."

It was the first time in my life that I had broken the rules, refusing to take a government-sponsored standardized test. I was standing up for what I believe in, and taking a road that I had avoided until that day. Despite my initial fear, I walked away smiling inside, having liberated my internal voice.

During May of their sophomore year, all students in the state's public high schools are required to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. Starting with the class of 2003 - my class - failure to pass the MCAS test will result in the withholding of a high school diploma.

I have always frowned upon the MCAS, for several reasons. First, I believe it is classist and racist. Students at economically disadvantaged high schools, with a higher percentage of students of color, perform poorly on standardized tests. These students are penalized for the quality of their education, which is the state's responsibility. Students from more prosperous Massachusetts districts, made up mainly of white students, pass more easily, due to the superior quality of their schools and the higher level of funds they receive.

The MCAS also makes little or no effort to accommodate students who speak English as a second language or who have special needs and learning disabilities. Furthermore, the MCAS forces educators to teach a strict curriculum to prepare students for the test.

This inflexible structure in public education lacks creativity and zest, two factors that engage students and provide the passion needed for academic achievement and enjoyment. I believe the MCAS test is the beginning of the destruction of any educational system that seeks to serve a world of students with diverse cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities.

When May of my sophomore year arrived, all these reasons led me to refuse to take the MCAS. On test day, other student boycotters and I began a small movement. During the two weeks of testing, we were not allowed in the school building. We sat in front of the school, making posters, distributing fliers, arranging meetings with the media and writing letters to state legislators.

Eventually, we created a school-based chapter of Students Concerned About MCAS, or SCAM. Our desperate later appeals to the school committee, for help in lowering the stakes of the test, went unheeded. School administrators were never supportive and became hostile toward us because we refused to take the test.

When our group was formed, there were about 15 of us. But as the years passed, most of the students who boycotted with me have taken the test on alternative dates. Most did so because their parents pressured them, but others took it to avoid the consequences that not receiving diplomas might have on their lives.

At times I questioned sticking with it. There were those who scoffed at my stand and said I was just causing trouble. Even my grandmother became impatient, as she urged me to "just take the test."

In each case, my courage and determination were challenged. But my refusal to back down was worth it. I realized that one person can bring about justice and equality by speaking out, even if change is not immediate. Not only did other students, teachers and parents gain respect for my desire to educate myself and for my passionate articulation of my views, but I also realized that the world will not shatter if I refuse to bend to harmful rules. Rather, the world expands and is strengthened by such actions.

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