More than a decade after the Education Reform Act, and two years since passing MCAS became a graduation requirement for high school students, few of the grim prophecies of widespread failure have come to pass. In 2004, the number of students who were denied a diploma for not passing MCAS stood at 2,582, while those who cleared the MCAS hurdle in time to graduate numbered 58,756, for a passing rate of 96 percent.

Amid the anxiety over those who were expected to fail MCAS, however, the spotlight never quite reached those who passed. Are students who get over the MCAS bar better prepared for college than their predecessors?

David Hartleb, president of Northern Essex Community College, says they are not. Hartleb examined data from college placement tests at Northern Essex, which has campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, from 2001 to 2004. He found that students tested at roughly the same levels of ability in math and English in 2003 and 2004 as they did in 2001 and 2002. The percentage of students who needed to be placed into remedial, or “developmental,” courses remained at comparable levels over the four years.

In 2001, before the MCAS graduation requirement took effect, 87 percent of new high school graduates (not counting those who came back to college years later) entering Northern Essex were placed in remedial math, 85 percent in 2002. In 2003, with incoming high school graduates who were all MCAS-certified, 83 percent required remedial math [Editor’s note: This statistic has been corrected.]; in 2004, 86 percent of the entering class placed into developmental math – a portion similar to pre-MCAS years.

A smaller subset of entering Northern Essex students required remedial help in reading and writing, but it remained largely unchanged post-MCAS. In reading, 35 percent of entrants were placed into developmental reading courses in 2001, and 37 percent in 2002. For those who came to Northern Essex after passing MCAS, 33 percent placed in remedial reading in 2003, 37 percent in 2004. In writing, 21 percent were assessed as needing help in 2001; in 2004, the figure was 24 percent.

“It’s sort of disappointing that the students that come after passing MCAS simply aren’t performing any better than the students before,” says Hartleb.

Of the 14 other community colleges in the state, only three could provide similar data. The ones that did also find that students who passed MCAS in receiving their high school diplomas require remedial education at rates little changed from those who came before. For example, at Bristol Community College, the percentage of entrants placing into a remedial algebra course was 92 percent in 2001; by 2004, the percentage had declined just slightly, to 87 percent. In writing, 43 percent required remedial help in 2001, 39 percent in 2004.

Some community college educators say they’ve seen some improvement in reading and writing among students in the post-MCAS era, but that math preparation is as poor as ever.

“Not a lot of years have passed, but I can safely say that our entering students have better English preparation,” says Sandra Kurtinitis, president of Quinsigamond Community College, in Worcester. “In the math area, we have really seen no change.”

Education Commissioner David Driscoll acknowledges that, at the current standard, the MCAS cutoff is no guarantee of college readiness. “It’s a minimal standard,” says Driscoll. “It really brought the bottom up, if you will.”

The test does not guarantee readiness for college

But up to what level? In determining if a student requires developmental education, community colleges in Massachusetts use Accuplacer, one of seven college placement tests approved by the federal government. “We have a long experience with it and we know that if students score the correct scores, they will do well in college, and if they don’t, they won’t do well,” says Hartleb.

Still, Accuplacer is not MCAS, raising questions about whether the two tests are testing the same abilities. “It wouldn’t surprise me if [Accuplacer] was testing for knowledge that might or might not be included in the [state curriculum] frameworks,” which MCAS reflects, observes Andrew Calkins, executive director of MassInsight Education, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. “On the other hand, if the standards in Massachusetts are as good as they are supposed to be and if the tests are as good as they are supposed to be, then the kind of skills that students should have if they do pretty well on the MCAS should show up on any other test that is worth its salt.”

But it could also be that MCAS, at least at the current passing level, is no evidence of college readiness. “I think it is fair to say we don’t know enough yet about the correlation between MCAS scores and success in college,” says Paul Reville, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy at MassINC.

Driscoll agrees that MCAS and AccuPlacer might be out of alignment. “We should do a correlation between the two. I think that’s something we ought to do,” he says. “MCAS is minimal, so AccuPlacer would be hopefully requesting a higher standard.”

In June, a study by Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group established by state governors and business leaders to support standards-based education reform, raised questions about that very point. They compared state tests from Massachusetts, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas with international and national tests. With respect to MCAS, Achieve concluded that the current passing grade of 220 represents competency on the seventh-to-ninth-grade level.

That MCAS is administered to 10th-grade students may also contribute to a lack of alignment with college-level skills. The Achieve report suggests that states should develop 12th-grade assessments that better predict college-level capabilities. But Calkins disagrees, saying that testing in 12th grade would leave no time to help those students who fail the test. “The current model is fine,” says Calkins. “We just need to keep raising our expectations.” To him, raising expectations means raising the passing score. “We don’t believe right now that the MCAS 220 is sufficiently high to guarantee that the student will be successful in college,” he says.

Until passing MCAS does mean a student is prepared for post-secondary work, community colleges like Hartleb’s will remain in the remedial-education business, even for state-approved high school graduates. For the foreseeable future, he says, “the considerable effort that we put into developmental education will continue unabated.”