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A Bay State revolt bucks high-stakes tests

In a battle over fairness and accountability, some school districts say 'No' to tying diplomas to a test.

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As graduation looms and students rent gowns and order yearbooks, some in Massachusetts are also going to court.

It's April, just two months shy of the state's first-ever denial of diplomas based on a standardized test, and opposition to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is reaching fever pitch. In a Minute Man-like revolt, entire school districts, from Cambridge to the Berkshire Mountains, are planning to defy the state, ignore the MCAS, and issue diplomas anyway. A few students have joined a class-action lawsuit against the state, and most districts have signed a resolution declaring that local school committees, and not a test, should determine who graduates.

The high-stakes tests have been contentious elsewhere, such as in Florida and California, but nowhere are critics more vocal than in Massachusetts, where grousing has turned to rebellion. "Other states are watching what happens here with great interest," says Jackie King, statewide coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, which opposes the MCAS.

As education reform gains momentum, the tests - used in nearly half of states - have grown more popular. They give diplomas meaning, say advocates, and they call attention to the needs of districts, schools, or students. In Massachusetts, points out Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a national organization that reviewed the MCAS, the test came with special funding "targeted at helping kids in danger of not passing."

But most of the test's opponents say it's not high standards they're against. Rather, it's the idea that a student could be punished for a school's failure - and that graduation could ride on one test.

Take Candido Molina who, for years, has had one goal: to be the first in his family to graduate from high school. Until two weeks ago, it seemed that goal - and, by extension, his dream of becoming a police officer - was out of reach. While the state has been touting the 90 percent of high school seniors who have passed the exam, Candido is among the 6,000 or so who haven't. Four tries resulted in an improved math score - up from 200 to 218 - but one that was still below the 220 needed for a diploma.

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