It’s an unfortunate state of civic affairs when organizations that are regular and influential participants in the public debate get their facts so wrong that it renders their claims the equivalent of misinformation.
But that is just what’s happened with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Citizens for Public Schools, a nonprofit it helps fund, as they pursue their effort to nix the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam as a high school-graduation requirement.
MTA President Max Page has said that “there are over 50,000 students who have failed to get a diploma, even though their teachers had said that they were ready to graduate with a diploma, but they didn’t pass one part of the MCAS test.” Through a spokesperson, Page said that information had come from Lisa Guisbond, head of Citizens for Public Schools.
That figure doesn’t appear to be within a country mile of the truth. Why not? Because it essentially counts each non-MCAS-passing high school senior from 2003 to 2019 as thwarted from obtaining a diploma by the MCAS alone. However, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, from 2015 to 2019, between 72 percent and 74 percent of seniors who hadn’t passed the MCAS had also failed to complete their local district’s graduation requirements.
DESE doesn’t have similar data for the entire 2003 to 2019 period during which passing the MCAS has been a graduation necessity. But in light of the 2015 to 2019 data, it’s obviously inaccurate to assign all failures to graduate during that period to the MCAS alone. Assuming the rate of non-completion of local requirements has held relatively constant over the years, a majority wouldn’t have graduated for other reasons. (As a side note, though some suggest a failure to pass the MCAS is the major reason seniors drop out of school, DESE’s 2015 to 2019 data show that between 62 percent and 72 percent of 12th-grade dropouts had in fact passed the MCAS.)
Sadly, this misinformation regarding the effect of the MCAS on graduation has regularly made its way into news stories. What’s more, an August letter from 96 state lawmakers to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education also cited the 52,000 figure in a way that would lead the uninitiated to think that failing the MCAS was all that had kept those students from graduating.
“Students who are denied diplomas based on MCAS scores have effectively been given the status of high school dropouts, regardless of whether or not they have successfully fulfilled all other graduation requirements,” the state lawmakers wrote.
All of this has created puzzlement and consternation among those familiar with the actual state of affairs.
“I am surprised that the MTA and Citizens for Public Schools leadership were not aware that relatively few students are denied diplomas based solely on MCAS,” former MTA president Paul Toner told me. “This was not a secret. It was something regularly pointed out by DESE staff and Commissioner Mitchell Chester during my tenure at MTA, and I regularly communicated that in internal meetings and discussions about MCAS.”
“The fact that advocacy groups have clouded the public debate with grossly exaggerated figures on the number of students prevented from graduating by the MCAS is incredibly frustrating,” said Martin West, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. He cites the August lawmakers’ letter as indicative of the way misinformation like this spreads.
“Ultimately the Legislature sets the policies that we operate under as a board — and if they have a false understanding of the facts on the ground, that is a problem,” he added.
In such a circumstance, responsible public policy players would undertake an effort to correct their error.
I called, texted, and e-mailed Page to ask what he intends to do on this matter.
I also repeatedly reached out to Guisbond.
That’s puzzling. Certainly Page, as a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, and Guisbond, as a well-known citizen activist, know the danger of misinformation and the importance of veracity in public debate.
They surely wouldn’t want policy makers, parents, or other members of the public to make up their minds about the MCAS based on the false information they spread … would they?