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High-Stakes Lawsuit in Massachusetts:
How High Are the Stakes?
by Pamela Wright

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In 1999, Pete wrote, "IDEA requirements about assessing disabled children on state testing may lead parents to realize that their child is not benefiting from special education. Litigation may begin sooner when this part of the statute takes effect." (Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, page 48-49)

Since 1999, lawsuits have been filed in in several states, including California, Oregon, and Indiana.

On September 19, 2002, six students from the Holyoke and Springfield areas filed a lawsuit against the state department of education and Holyoke school district.

How High are the Stakes?

Assume a student has a learning disability with deficits in reading and math. Assume the school district did not provide the student with remediation to strengthen these weak skills.

Assume the student does not drop out. He works hard and perseveres. Assume he passes all his courses. Assume he is on the Honor Roll.

Assume the student fails the English and math sections of the state high-stakes test.

Assume he lives in Massachusetts (or any state that requires students to pass a test to graduate from high school).

Assume he was one of 12,000 Massachusetts seniors who failed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam (that's right 12,000!).

Under current state standards, unless he passes the MCAS, our student will not receive a high school diploma in June.

In Massachusetts, a student cannot attend a state college or university without a diploma. If our student applies to an independent college or university, he will find that a diploma or its equivalent is required.

Reading & Math

According to the U.S. Department of Education, only one-third of fourth-graders are able to read at a proficient level. "This means that nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders have a greater likelihood of dropping out and a lifetime of diminished success." (The Facts About Reading Achievement, U.S. Department of Education)

Math scores are even worse. "Only a quarter of our fourth- and eighth-graders are performing at or above proficient levels in math. Twelfth-grade math scores have not improved since 1996 . . . " Less than 20 percent of twelfth graders are proficient in math. (The Facts About Math Achievement, U.S. Department of Education)

Teacher Quality

Nothing is more important to a child's success in school than well-prepared teachers. But millions of children do not have well-prepared teachers. (The Facts About Good Teachers, U.S. Department of Education)

Assume our student did not learn reading and math skills because he was not taught by well-prepared teachers. If he fails the high-stakes test because he was not taught by well-trained teachers, should he be punished because the state and local school district did not ensure that he was taught by well-prepared teachers?

According to a study prepared for The New England Council's Commission on High Technology Workforce Development, more than one-quarter of all newly hired secondary teachers in Massachusetts were not certified in their area of teaching responsibility.

"The shortage was particularly acute among special education, foreign language and math and science teachers." ("Shortages and Certified Teachers" by Richard M. Freeland and Peter Meade, Boston Globe, December 11, 2001)

"The evidence shows, for example, that students whose teachers have been trained in their subjects perform better than students whose teachers lack subject-matter preparation. Yet each year about a third of teachers in U.S. schools are assigned at least one class a day for which they have not been trained." (Teacher Quality, Education Week)


On September 19, six students from the Holyoke and Springfield areas filed a lawsuit filed against the state department of education and Holyoke school district.

According to The Boston Globe, "The case is the first legal assault on what is regarded as one of the nation's toughest graduation exams, and lawyers will ask a judge to certify it as a class-action suit."

The suit alleges that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam discriminates against students with disabilities, minority students, and students with limited-English skills. The complaint also alleges that the state education department does not have the authority to make the MCAS test a requirement for graduation.

"About 19 percent of the class of 2003, about 12,000 high-schoolers, still have to pass the 10th-grade math or English section of the MCAS test to earn a diploma. Failure rates for minority, disabled, and limited-English students are twice or three times as high." (Lawsuit says many students ill-prepared for MCAS by Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe, Sept 20, 2002)

In Massachusetts, the 1993 Education Reform Act created mandatory curriculum frameworks for key subjects in every grade. The Education Reform Law also raised the bar for teachers by requiring them to pass a literacy/communication test. (Mass. Dept of Ed. website)

The lawsuit alleges that students who are scheduled to graduate in 2003 have not had enough exposure to the curriculum standards measured by the MCAS exam.


On September 23, the Massachusetts Education Commissioner proposed that students who do not pass the MCAS test could receive a "local certificate"' instead of a high school diploma. (Education boss will propose alternative to H.S. diplomas by Ed Hayward, Boston Herald, September 24, 2002)

Not all members of the Massachusetts Education Commission agree with this proposal. The former chairman of the Board of Education criticized the local certificate option. He recommended that students who fail MCAS take the GED exam:

"'(The GED) would get you further than a local certificate. Unlike the local certificate, it would mean something,'' said John Silber, chancellor of Boston University. 'A local certificate says nothing but that we have decided to give a high school diploma to a student who has failed, failed a test at the most modest level conceivable.''' (Education boss will propose alternative to H.S. diplomas by Ed Hayward, Boston Herald, Sept. 24, 2002)

Will a "local certificate" solve our student's problem? Is a "local certificate" an acceptable substitute for a real high school diploma? Is a certificate an acceptable substitute for teaching basic skills?

If we do not teach children the basic skills they need to make it in life, we betray them. If we punish children because they do not learn skills we fail to teach, we betray them again.

What do you think?

Information Cited in this Article

Education boss will propose alternative to H.S. diplomas by Ed Hayward, Boston Herald, Sept. 24, 2002)

Lawsuit Says Many Students Ill-Prepared for MCAS by Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe, Sept 20, 2002)

Shortages and Certified Teachers" by Richard M. Freeland and Peter Meade, Boston Globe, December 11, 2001). Richard Freeland is president of Northeastern University and co-chair of The New England Council's Commission on High Technology Labor Market Development. Peter Meade is chairman of the New England Council.

Teaching Quality Viewed as Essential by Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily, Education Week, July 10, 2002)

Teacher Quality, Education Week.

The Facts About Good Teachers, U. S. Department of Education.

The Facts About Reading Achievement, U. S. Department of Education.

The Facts About Math Achievement, U. S. Department of Education.

The Facts About Measuring Progress, U. S. Department of Education

Free Pubs

Disability Rights Advocates, Do No Harm - High Stakes Testing and Students with Learning Disabilities (2001).

Describes accommodations, alternate assessments, appeals, procedures, and other safeguards that should be implemented for statewide assessment systems to comply with the law and guarantee educationally sound opportunities to students with learning disabilities. Download
To order bound copies, contact Disability Rights Advocates, 449 15th Street, Suite 303. Oakland, CA 94612-2821. Phone: 510-451-8644

Center for Education Policy, State High School Exit Exams: A Baseline Report

Report includes data for all states with current or planned exit exams; case studies in five states; a review of major research; recommendations to ensure that exit exams are implemented well and lead to greater learning. (pdf, 148 pages)
Copies of the summary of the report are free. Copies of full report are $10.00 (includes postage and handling); you can download the full 148 page report free from the Center's website.

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