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Putting college in reach of intellectually disabled

Task force wants end to MCAS and diploma requirements for some

A legislative task force is calling for changes that would allow students with intellectual disabilities and autism- spectrum disorders to take college classes in Massachusetts even if they haven’t passed the MCAS test or earned a high school diploma.

Democratic Representative Tom Sannicandro of Ashland, the chairman of the task force, said the recommendation is one of several that would help remove barriers that prevent these students from experiencing the benefits of higher education.

“We need to make opportunities available for this population in Massachusetts,’’ said Sannicandro. “It can benefit them in all sorts of ways, from civic engagement to employment and transforming them personally.’’


The Task Force on High Education for Students with Intellectual Disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders held four regional hearings over the past several months and is officially releasing its report Monday. The report outlines its findings and recommendations, which also include expanding a transitional enrollment program, currently in eight colleges, to all 29 of the state’s public institutions of high education.

Task force members said they heard pleas from parents, students, educators, and experts for more inclusive higher education opportunities.

In addition, they said, research shows that inclusive postsecondary education initiatives for students with severe disabilities have a positive impact on their rates of employment and wages, self-determination skills, social networks, and independent living.

An intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, such as learning everyday social and practical skills.

One of the biggest barriers to higher education for those students is the MCAS requirement, Sannicandro said.

To enroll in a state or community college in Massachusetts, students must have a high school diploma. In order to receive a diploma, students must pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, standardized test, which many students with intellectual disabilities are unable to do, he said.


“When they reach 18, their typical peers go on to college and these students are barred from doing that,’’ Sannicandro said. “MCAS acts as a complete barrier to these students. We need to give them the same rights to an education that everyone else has.’’

Sannicandro has filed an amendment to the state budget that would eliminate the MCAS requirement for those students to attend college. The proposal is expected to be debated by the House this week, but is also part of separate legislation filed by Sannicandro that has not yet been taken up.

Charles Desmond, chairman of the state’s Board of Higher Education, agrees that the MCAS requirement is a barrier, and needs to be looked at so students with severe disabilities are not left out.

“There has to be a way for us to figure out how to do this,’’ said Desmond, who served on the task force. “More work needs to be done, but there is a broad-based commitment and buy-in to the fact that we need to work on this.’’

However, Desmond doesn’t expect any immediate changes. He said the MCAS requirement has long been controversial not only for students with special needs but other groups such as low-income and minority students, who have historically struggled to pass the test.

“If you change the criteria for some students, other students who have been adversely impacted by the MCAS may have a similar argument,’’ Desmond said. “It’s not as simple as it looks on the surface.’’


Also coming up for discussion in the state budget is a request to increase funding for the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment program for students between the age of 18 and 22, who have an IQ below 70 and have not passed the MCAS graduation test. Through the program, colleges partner with local school districts, which are required to provide education until age 22, to offer classes and a campus experience.

The program is offered at Bridgewater State University, Westfield State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Bunker Hill Community College, Roxbury Community College, UMass Boston, Cape Cod Community College, and Middlesex Community College. Massachusetts Bay Community College runs its own, separate program.

The additional funding would help expand the program to three or four more campuses, and help fund a new residential component so students could live in dorms at Bridgewater State.

This year, about 75 students took part in the inclusive grant program, a number that represents a small fraction of the more than 3,700 students ages 18-22 with severe disabilities statewide.

Students don’t necessarily take classes for college credit, but are getting academic and social experiences that will better prepare them for an independent life, officials said. Those without access to higher education are limited to isolated day programs, living in poverty or dependent on government care, they said.

“Higher education provides opportunities to people,’’ Sannicandro said. “It’s not about getting an ‘A’ in a class but getting as much information that is useful. Maybe for these students, the benefit they get and the results may not be the same as a typical student but it doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable or that they aren’t changed by having that access.’’


Nolan Tierce, 23, of Newton, started taking classes at Mass Bay Community College in 2009 through its inclusion program, which is now called the Transitional Scholars Program. In an e-mail, Tierce said he’s always wanted to go to college to experience new things, make friends, and advance his acting career.

Not only has he taken classes, but he’s participated in extracurricular activities such as the Glee Club and acting club.

“I am very independent in college and I like that too,’’ he said.

Julia Landau, senior project director at the Boston-based Massachusetts Advocates for Children and a task force member, said based on testimony at the hearings and support from key state officials, she is cautiously optimistic that the time is right for change in Massachusetts.

“There is momentum,’’ Landau said. “It’s an equity issue and a civil rights issue. I’m hopeful.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@