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Dropout Rate Clouds Buoyant MCAS Results

Ohanian Comment: At last! A reporter who is intereted in the real numbers. The one problem: We shouldn't call it the dropout rate: it's the pushout rate.

The way the state portrays it, MCAS passing rates among high school seniors are so good -- surpassing 95 percent -- that education officials should consider raising the bar.

But factor in the dropout rate, and the success rate plummets to the point where MCAS critics contend that a real problem is being swept aside.

About 96 percent of Bay State seniors passed the mandatory math and English Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests by the time they graduated, state officials reported this week.

New Bedford did well by this measure, with 94 percent passing, and Fall River was right behind with 92 percent. Some other Massachusetts cities -- Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Holyoke, Lawrence and Springfield -- did no better than 84 percent. Latino and African-American failure rates, 15 percent and 12 percent respectively, dragged down the scores in those urban areas, the state Department of Education reported.

But other numbers may matter more, according to Anne Wheelock, senior research associate at Boston College's Lynch School of Education.

For example, the size of the class of 2004 in New Bedford dropped from 994 four years ago to 573 today; and including those missing 421 students in the equation brings the MCAS pass rate down to 54.5 percent rather than the 95 percent being reported. A similar result can be found in other school systems.

In New Bedford's case, however, the class of 2004 represents an improvement. The class of 2003, the first to confront the MCAS requirement, and which also started with 994 members, graduated just 519 students. School officials and community leaders have stepped up the effort to keep students in school, prompted in part by federal requirements that will bear down especially hard on urban school systems with high attrition rates.

(Statewide as well, according to Ms. Wheelock, there has been some "recovery" from the low point of last year.)

Apply the four-year measure statewide, and the MCAS pass rate falls to 73.8 percent, not 96 percent, Ms. Wheelock said. The change also occurs among the various subcategories, some worse than others, particularly Latinos and African-Americans.

Another problem: The MCAS obstacle in the 10th grade is causing many students to be held back in Grade 9. In New Bedford, Ms. Wheelock said, "the loss between Grade 9 and Grade 10 is enormous. For example, the current year, there are 782 students in Grade 10; there were 1,052 students in Grade 9 last year. That's more kids lost in one year for the class of 2006 than have been lost in two years for the class of 2005."

She also observed that the pass rates appear to have roughly stagnated, a concern since the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as well as state law, mandate improvements in performance from year to year.

The federal mandate will soon start to bear down on school districts nationwide, as it begins to focus on absentee and dropout rates. The federal government will track those statistics and eventually will begin penalizing underperforming districts. It is a system that has school officials upset that an unfunded mandate has been imposed on them, with further loss of federal funds the threat for failure to meet the eventual goal.

The goal itself is an impossible one, many claim, with the target being 100 percent proficiency in math and English by 2014.
State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll suggested this week that the passing grade on the 280-point scale might possibly be raised from the current 220 to 230, a move that would require state Board of Education approval and take about three years.

Gary Kaplan, executive director of JFYNetWorks, an MCAS tutorial contractor with a contract in New Bedford and 18 other districts, endorsed that idea on the grounds that barely passing a 10th-grade exam is a low standard even if it is better than what existed before.

"The question is, what do these students know? What can they do?" he said.

New Bedford Schools Superintendent Michael E. Longo could not be reached for comment.

— Steve Urbon


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