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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

School Committee May Do
(Some of) the Right Thing

Dennis Fox

March 13, 2003

Finally, the School Committee will soon decide whether to grant diplomas to Brookline High School graduates who meet all town requirements but fail the state-imposed MCAS exam. Last year, when several towns said they'd do just that, our committee passed only a toothless resolution. But with the state diktat kicking in this spring, delay is no longer tenable.

On March 13th, the School Committee will hear from BHS Headmaster Robert Weintraub, whose Faculty Council has already called on the committee to grant diplomas to every student meeting non-MCAS requirements. No doubt parents, students, and teachers will also show up, again, to urge the committee to do the right thing.

Although this issue has been building and the number of towns planning to ignore the MCAS requirement is growing, the committee will stall a bit longer. Chair Marcia Heist, who said in last week's TAB that "This is the beginning of the discussion.... We've been waiting for this," told me she may schedule a public forum for the March 27th meeting to solicit further input. And a report from town counsel, originally scheduled for March 13, has been postponed.

More public discussion on just about anything is a good thing, but I wonder why committee members need additional time to reach a decision they've long hinted is inevitable. School officials frequently ridicule MCAS and other state and federal mandates that corrupt education even here in Brookline (despite denials that we're affected). Several members have consistently said they will ensure all BHS students graduate despite MCAS. They've asked concerned parents and students to "trust us."

Is scheduling a forum designed to stall even longer, in the hope that other state developments might make formalizing Brookline policy unnecessary? Is it just to show how careful the committee is? If they really need more input, they could have solicited some throughout the past year.

According to the latest test results, fourteen BHS students won't get state-approved diplomas. Nine receive special education services designed to help students with disabilities succeed in school. According to Superintendent Richard Silverman, at least seven of these appear to meet town graduation requirements. Only failing a test that ignores their individualized educational plans bars a diploma.

The other five on the state's do-not-graduate list refused to take the test. Some of these boycotters have already been accepted by colleges whose administrators know MCAS performance is irrelevant to academic ability. For these students, a high school diploma may not be crucial. Yet they too deserve one for meeting town requirements.

They may not get it, though.

Committee members don't want to encourage boycotters, whose automatic failing grades lower the town average and thus weaken parental bragging rights. So even if the committee awards diplomas to students who fail MCAS, they may leave test refusers hanging. Headmaster Weintraub told the TAB last week that he's "working on something special" with the boycotters. That doesn't sound like a diploma to me.

Given the committee's own apparent willingness to finally flout state demands, they should cut the boycotters some slack for having the gumption to do the same thing. Otherwise, what's the lesson? Adults can make kids do stupid things and then punish them for refusing? That they already know.

The School Committee will probably reach a decision before May's town election, but implementation won't come until new members replace two departing ones. Judy Myers is running for re-election, and four others have joined the race. Voters should press all five to clarify their views.

Of the five, I best know Ruth Kaplan, co-chair (with Lisa Guisbond) of the anti-MCAS BrooklineCARE group I belong to. Ruth's careful, organized, lawyerly approach doesn't always match my own rabble-rousing inclinations, but she's proven herself an effective advocate. Will Ruth and former CARE co-leader Sue Senator create an activist School Committee nucleus on MCAS, special education, and other issues about which they're knowledgeable and passionate? Or will they succumb to committee pressure to conform to its controversy-aversive traditions? I'd like to find out.

One related stress-avoidance reminder: In Brookline, you can excuse your child from the next MCAS tests, which resume in a few weeks, by sending a letter to the principal. There's no penalty for skipping MCAS in the lower grades.

More on high-stakes testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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