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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Diplomas, Licenses, and
Bar Mitzvahs

Dennis Fox

January 16, 2003

The Bush Administration announced last week that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System complies with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law requires all public schools receiving federal money to test all children annually, beginning in third grade. The feds consider Massachusetts a leader in George W. Bush's kind of education reform: using high-stakes tests to mask the reshaping of public education to meet corporate needs.

Federal approval also makes sense because Massachusetts requires something even the feds don't impose: limiting high school graduation to students who pass government-designed tests. Thousands of Massachusetts students who fail this spring's MCAS exam won't get a diploma even if they pass every course. If the rule stands here, it will tempt the feds to require it nationwide.

Fortunately, opposition grows with every news story about sloppily written test questions, or about another study demonstrating the warping of quality education in high-performing schools, or about testing's ludicrous use in schools where the state-required curriculum is not yet fully taught.

Opposition grows with every example of students unable to pass the exam -- or refusing to take it -- who nevertheless are accepted by prestigious universities whose admissions officers understand that scores on politically imposed tests are irrelevant to college success.

Opposition also grows with the realization that equally hard-working students who cannot afford private colleges will be barred from Massachusetts state colleges if officials get their way, and that state-proposed second-rate "certificates" will only institutionalize two-tiered outcomes.

So school committees in Cambridge, Falmouth, and Hampshire Regional are poised to issue local diplomas to students who pass all courses and meet other local requirements. Dozens of school committees have signed the Brookline Resolution, which insists local districts "have the right" to issue diplomas (or "should" have the right, in the version the Massachusetts Association of School Committees passed). If committee rhetoric becomes action, the conflict will end up in court.

One central issue is the diploma's purpose. The state says a diploma should guarantee student mastery: it should "means something." But what should it mean?

The state's error is mistaking a diploma for a license. When I learned to drive, a written test demonstrated my knowledge of traffic rules; a driving test proved I could drive safely. My drivers license affirmed needed competence in relevant skills.

Licenses serve more questionable purposes. Requirements for professional licenses are sometimes designed to dampen competition. For bureaucratic convenience or to protect the turf of doctors, lawyers, and electricians, they exclude some qualified people. Even drivers license rules vary over time and place. But at least in theory a license is skill-based.

That's not a high school diploma's purpose.

Instead, think bar mitzvah.

My own bar mitzvah didn't guarantee I had picked up any specific knowledge in Hebrew school. Every temple and synagogue has its own rules, its own content, its own measure of effort. If a bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl can't read like a rabbi or chant like a cantor, the ritual is modified to meet that child's abilities.

Most bar mitzvah kids know that reading and chanting Hebrew is no indication one understands either the words or the concepts. The ceremony recognizes not factual knowledge -- which often soon fades away -- but commitment, perseverance, and community acceptance.

Similarly, a high school traditionally devises its own requirements. Content mastery is assessed within each course. The diploma recognizes sustained multi-year effort, the ability to meet educational goals, individualized when necessary. Then comes the ceremony, the party, and entry to adulthood.

Turning diplomas into licenses is deceptively appealing. We've all come across graduates who can't make change or write a clear paragraph. The best way to improve education, though, is to give every public school the resources of those in well-off suburbs, every family the advantages of families living in those suburbs. Difficult, sure, but anything less guarantees inequality, diploma or not.

The state's determination to arbitrarily restrict diplomas parallels the restrictive use of professional licenses. But colleges already pick applicants who meet their own standards. Workplaces already test for, or teach, needed skills. Turning a diploma into a license is unnecessary, as well as educationally harmful.

Our school committee should prevent that from happening.


More on high-stakes testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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