Friday, June 22, 2007

How much is a diploma worth?

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has recently appointed to the state Board of Education Ruth Kaplan, an advocate for special education and critic of the MCAS graduation requirement.

Kaplan said she considers the MCAS graduation requirement unfair because some districts do not yet provide students with the curriculum needed to succeed on the exams. "Testing is supposed to measure how well a school district is doing," she said. "If they aren't doing it well, why are we punishing the kids by denying them a diploma?"
Of course, Ms. Kaplan is really saying, "Instead of punishing kids by denying them a diploma, we should punish them by giving them a meaningless piece of paper that creates a false sense of accomplishment when our schools have failed to teach them basic skills."

Now, I applaud Ms. Kaplan's desire to advocate for special education, but she is working at cross purposes with herself by expending effort to remove the MCAS graduation requirement. She is incorrect in her assumption that testing is intended to measure school effectiveness: The MCAS, and standardized tests like it around the world, are intended to measure student learning in specific areas, which can be used as a proxy for school effectiveness. If a student doesn't pass the MCAS after multiple attempts, the student has not demonstrated success in learning what the state has deemed are necessary knowledge and skills for the student's adult life. To give that student a diploma--a document certifying that the student has achieved the expected learning--is to lie to the student and anyone who would evaluate the student's qualifications. This isn't to say that the failure to learn is necessarily entirely the fault of students--part (perhaps even much) of the burden certainly falls on our educational system. But, I really don't see how lying about the students' abilities will do them any favors or help them succeed in their future lives.

If our schools don't provide students with the curriculum necessary to pass the MCAS, then our schools aren't providing students with the curriculum necessary for most of them to be successful as adults. The solution isn't to get rid of the MCAS graduation requirement, but to reform the education our schools provide.

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