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Thousands of Mass. Seniors Have Yet to Pass Science Exam

Today is a big day for more than 4,100 seniors in Massachusetts who have yet to pass a high-stakes science test, a high school graduation requirement that kicked in for the first time with the class of 2010.

The students, who represent roughly 6 percent of the state's nearly 70,000 12th graders, have failed to earn a passing score in science repeatedly. Today's test is the final opportunity for these seniors to pass in time to receive a diploma with their classmates at June graduation ceremonies.

The Boston Globe reports that some education advocates worry that the persistent failure could cause many students to give up on receiving a diploma.

But Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, is quoted as saying the state is standing firm.

"I'm always concerned about individual students who have not met the graduation requirement,'' he said. "Nonetheless, the science requirement is appropriate and reasonable, and our schools have demonstrated the ability to deliver increasingly stronger results for students.''

Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for the state education agency, says the test results will be returned on May 21, in time for graduation in June. Students will also have another chance to take the test in June.

The state administers science exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and technology/engineering. Students need to pass only one of those by scoring at least "needs improvement," the second-lowest of four scoring categories.

The state has been testing in science for some time now, but this is the first group of seniors who must pass the test as part of their graduation requirements. Massachusetts students have long been required to pass tests in mathematics and English. The high-stakes English and math testing had faced strong criticism in the early years of its implementation, but the opposition has died down considerably over time as the pass rates have gone up. Here's a state overview of the testing requirements.

Considine notes that the state also offers an appeals process that gives students who don't pass all the required state tests another route to earn a diploma. So far, he says, 349 students have met the science requirement through the appeals process.

I can't resist noting that the Globe story quotes Susan Szachowicz, the principal of Brockton High School, which I featured in a recent story included in our Quality Counts 2010 publication. That school, which serves a diverse, urban population, has come a long way over time in improving its pass rates on the state's standardized tests, winning state and national recognition.

The Globe story explains that Brockton High has been offering struggling seniors intensive help, which reduced the number who had yet to pass a science test from 70 in September to 16 as of last month. In fact, the students who still hadn't passed were attending a biology "boot camp" three times a week to help them gear up for today's exam.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed,'' Szachowicz told the Globe.

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