MCAS divides voters, poll finds

English immersion has strong support

Placing them at odds with many in the state’s educational and political establishment, Massachusetts voters seem ambivalent about the MCAS test as a graduation requirement and strongly back an effort to replace bilingual education with English immersion, according to the latest Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll.

With just nine months before the first class of students are denied diplomas if they failed the MCAS test, some analysts said that state education leaders have much work to do to shore up support for the test, the linchpin of the 1993 Education Reform Act. The poll, conducted of 801 voters by KRC Communications Research of Newton, showed that 47 percent of them oppose requiring high-schoolers to pass the MCAS to graduate, while 45 percent support it. Eight percent didn’t know.

Those results are within the poll’s margin of error of 3 percentage points – a dead heat showing that voters are essentially split on the graduation requirement, which kicks in next June for the class of 2003.

Paul Reville, chairman of the Education Reform Review Commission, a state panel that monitors education improvement efforts, called the results a warning for state leaders.

”They should pay close attention to the fact that it reflects diminishing or declining support for the stakes associated with standards – not so much so that it would be cause to abandon that approach,” Reville said.

On Thursday, the Department of Education released 2002 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam scores showing some progress in Grade 10: 86 percent of the students passed English, up 4 percentage points from last year, and 75 percent passed math, the same as last year. Next week, Acting Governor Jane Swift is expected to issue an update on how many students in the previous year’s class still have to pass the test to graduate. So far, 25 percent of the class of 2003 must clear the MCAS hurdle.

”The voters are saying here, `We’re really not sure. Are you guys really sure this is what you want to do right now?”’ said Glenn S. Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. ”The MCAS skeptics are saying, `This is what we had hoped for.’ And the MCAS hard right may be saying, `Uh-oh, is the public having a major difference of opinion with us?”’

Some school leaders who back the test, such as Hudson Superintendent of Schools Sheldon H. Berman, said the state education brass have been unwilling to acknowledge flaws in the exam and concerns about its difficulty. The poll, Berman said, reflects that the public will soon demand such a debate. The MCAS scores released Thursday show that special-education and limited-English students failed at rates three or four times higher than their regular-education peers.

”I don’t have any problem with raising standards. But in some areas of policy, we have really erred, and the public is beginning to see that,” said Berman, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

But State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll remains confident that the state is on the right track with MCAS. It has given schools a road map and has ensured the worthiness of a diploma, he said. Maintaining support for MCAS requires spreading that message, he said.

”Given the emotional nature of it, I think it’s almost remarkable that we have 50 percent of people with us,” Driscoll said. ”A lot of the onus is on us to keep going and districts to keep going, and to make sure that we’re very clear on what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.”

One voter who was questioned, Debra of Peabody, said she had two sons who went through public schools – one who ”whizzed” through and one with a learning disability who she feels was promoted without getting enough help. ”I feel if they had the MCAS, they would have spent more time helping him,” said Debra, 46, who did not want her last name used.

On bilingual education, the picture is fuzzier. By a margin of 65 percent to 24 percent, voters said they would back a November ballot initiative to replace bilingual education in Massachusetts with English immersion classes. The measure is spearheaded by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who successfully sponsored similar efforts in California and Arizona. But by almost the same numbers – 63 percent versus 23 percent – voters support legislation signed by Swift that lets schools choose their own bilingual education method, requires annual testing, and strengthens DOE oversight over the programs.

”When people see that real change is through immersing children immediately and wholly into English, they will come to the ballot in very huge numbers,” said Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of Unz’s Massachusetts campaign.

But the poll reinforces the strategy for the anti-Unz Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers to hold the legislation up as a less-Draconian alternative, campaign manager Owen Eagan said. ”That’ll be part of our message: informing voters of the new legislation that provides flexibility to school districts and ensures accountability without suing teachers” as the Unz question allows, Eagan said.

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