by Julia Steiny
In 2003, Massachusetts imposed high-school graduation requirements that included passing the state test, the MCAS. The state set the bar inches from the floor, so "passing" required knowing precious little math. But even this minimal requirement met with loud, fierce and sometimes full-on vicious public opposition.
Ah, but everyone knows that story had a very happy ending. Massachusetts held the course, weathered the assaults, and became the darling of American education. They've even been able to notch the bar up since then, gently pushing for ever better results. Just getting that first cohort of high-school kids to give a fig about the MCAS, as a grad requirement, improved the pass rate by 20 percentage points overnight. Huge. But no one succeeds to their potential when the stakes are puny.
Now, ten years later, Rhode Island is going through the same experience, under remarkably similar circumstances. The bar is low. Kids have multiple opportunities to re-take the test. The percentage of RI kids who didn't pass the NECAP first time around — 38 percent — is similar to the unhappy first-timers in MA — 32 percent.
Like MA, RI officials didn't buckle to the opposition, thank God. RI must improve the quality of its education and workforce. But other than getting the kids invested in their own scores and learning, what else might help?
Recently I came across a 2003 Boston Globe article reporting on the newspaper's own analysis of the first cohort of students who did not pass that year's MCAS.
Their findings were something of a jaw dropper, frankly. Yes, students with special needs were somewhat more likely to have failed. Ditto English language learners. But even among them, the effects were substantially mitigated by one simple factor: attendance — whether or not they regularly went to school.
The Globe research showed that the great majority of students who failed the MCAS had been "chronically absent," as defined by missing at least 10 percent of the school year, or about a month of school at least. As kids get into the habit of bunking, likely many of them continue, year after year.
Thanks to recent national research on the subject, America is finally awakening to the problem of chronic absenteeism, which has probably been pervasive for a long time. Educators examined school drop-out rates and overall attendance, but where were they on this topic? It's weird that a media outlet did the 2003 research. But what's far weirder is how little was made of the issue back when these glaring facts were first discovered.
Apparently, 94 percent of MA students who matriculated every year from grade to grade, passed the 2003 high-school MCAS. But even among those who'd been held back a grade, or who'd moved to different schools frequently, or whose schooling was otherwise disrupted, even they were much more likely to pass if they were not chronically absent. Low-income and special needs students were far more likely to pass if they went to school.
So there it is, writ large: If you go to school, your odds of passing these low-expectations state exams are all but signed and sealed. Bunk school and failure is likely yours.
Rhode Island's officials have not yet crunched any such data that I know of, nor have the local media outlets. So I'm only guessing that many of that 38 percent of non-passers were probably bunkers. And if they didn't go to school, why should they get diplomas? What's the message to the kids if they get a diploma anyway? We owe you. Really?
When visiting one of last summer's many NECAP programs for the non-passers, I asked a suburban student if he was worried about passing his NECAP retake. He said he was totally worried, because he couldn't understand why he failed it in the first place. After all, he complained, he studied really hard right before the test.
Wait a second! He "studied?" Statewide tests are supposed to assess an accumulation of years of being steeped in numeracy. What could he use to cram for a state exam? Was it for a night, two weeks, a month?
Loads of obstacles keep kids from going to school, ranging from the need to take care of family members to just feeling bored and disconnected from academics and their school community. Schools must investigate why students don't come, and partner with social services when the problems are beyond the schools' capacities. But every school's main job is to set kids up for future success, so helping all kids master the entry-level discipline of showing up every day and on time is essential. And yes, their families and communities must be involved in this as well.
But if young adults don't go to school, it's definitely no favor to them to let them think they should get diplomas no matter what. Go to school; pass math. Get real.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.