Student stumped MCAS test,
and vice versa
HIGGINS /The Patriot Ledger
|Jennifer Mueller, a senior
at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, studies with her boyfriend,
University of Massachusetts freshman Matt Overstreet.
W-H senior finds
exam flaw, but still
By DINA GERDEMAN
The Patriot Ledger
Mueller, 18, was smart enough to stump mathematicians and state
test reviewers by finding an unusual way of answering a math question
on the MCAS, a discovery that led to a score boost for hundreds
of test-takers statewide.
In the eyes of state officials, however, Mueller does not deserve
a high school diploma because she has not passed the MCAS.
About 49 percent of the 10,500 high school seniors statewide
who are on the MCAS failure list are regular education students
Mueller is an average student at Whitman-Hanson Regional High
School. earning mostly B’s and C’s.
She didn’t give the MCAS much thought when she first took it
her sophomore year. She passed the English section, but after
failing the math part of the exam by one point, she began taking
the test more seriously. She figured the test got the best of
her the first time because she had not yet taken a geometry class,
and the test included several geometry questions.
After taking a geometry class and enrolling in MCAS tutoring
courses during the school day, on Saturdays and during the summer,
she felt confident she would pass. But she failed the exam two
Mueller said she often performs poorly on tests, excelling instead
on hands-on assignments. She tried to transform the MCAS into
a language she could understand by converting math questions into
“I kept reading the questions and drawing circles, dots, lines
and dashes, trying to come up with another way of looking at them,”
It was that unique approach to math that led Mueller to find
an alternative correct answer to an MCAS question.
She made her discovery in November during a tutorial class.
The teacher pulled out a question about the binary number system
that had appeared on the MCAS test in May. When Mueller chose
an answer, the teacher said she was incorrect.
“I wasn’t going to say anything at first,” Mueller said. “But
then I thought, ‘I do have good reasoning.’”
The teacher agreed and, after bringing the question to school
officials’ attention, everyone from administrators at Whitman-Hanson
to officials of the state Department of Education were reworking
the question, using Mueller’s logic.
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“She looks at math in a unique way. And she is a person who
doesn’t give up,” Ruth Gilbert-Whitner, assistant superintendent
for Whitman-Hanson schools, said at the time the answer was discovered.
“If a lot of people were told that there was only one answer and
they were wrong, they would believe it. She’s got a tenacity that
After consulting mathematicians, state officials agreed to count
a second answer - Mueller’s - as correct on that question. The
discovery led to a statewide change in exam scores for many students,
allowing an additional 449 to become eligible for diplomas.
Mueller received cards and flowers from several students grateful
to her for the high school diplomas they will receive this year
as a result of that extra point.
The extra point wasn’t enough, however, to give Mueller a passing
“She does try hard. I know she dearly wants to pass,’’ said
Regina Campbell, a math teacher at Whitman-Hanson Regional who
has tutored Mueller. “And she’s so close.”
“How can you pass math classes
and fail the MCAS? Either the teachers need some work or
the MCAS needs some work."
Most of Mueller’s friends passed the exam, so she was embarrassed
at first to reveal that she had failed.
“People would ask, ‘Did you pass the MCAS?’ I just said, ‘No,
and I don’t want to talk about it,’” Mueller said.
Mueller has her future mapped out: She wants to take a year
off after high school to work full time and save money for college.
Then she plans to enroll in a college program that will allow
her to pursue a career as an American sign language interpreter.
Down the road, she intends to marry her boyfriend of more than
a year, Matt Overstreet, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Mueller met a friend last year who is hard of hearing and uses
sign language to communicate, spurring Mueller to take an interest
in learning to sign. She enrolled in three sign language classes
at the high school, and the more she learned, the more convinced
she became that she wanted to work as an interpreter.
“I don’t want to do a job that’s a regular, boring job,’’ said
Mueller, who now works part time at a video store. “I want to
do something to help people, and I don’t want to put the sign
language thing on hold because of the MCAS.”
Whitman-Hanson teacher Anna Gauthier, who has worked with Mueller
on sign language, believes she is focused and driven enough to
see her dream realized if the test doesn’t get in her way. Working
as a sign language interpreter typically requires either an associate’s
or bachelor’s degree, she said.
“I have no doubt she’s both motivated and capable of accomplishing
her goal,’’ she said. “It’s a good match for her, and I see her
as being very successful in an interpreting certification program.”
Mueller’s mother, Laura Hollis, said it doesn’t make sense that
students who fail the MCAS are excelling in their classes, noting
that her daughter is earning B’s and C’s in math.
“How can you pass math classes and fail the MCAS? Either the
teachers need some work or the MCAS needs some work,’’ said Hollis,
who has an associate’s degree in hotel and restaurant management
and is a nursing student at Massasoit Community College.
“I’m definitely concerned about Jennifer,’’ said Hollis, who
would like to see Jennifer, the oldest of her three children,
go to college. “I don’t know what she’ll do if she fails.”
Mueller isn’t sure, either. She is not thrilled with the prospect
of continuing with the tutoring and taking the test time and time
“Going to school for 12 years and doing all the work they give
us is enough,’’ she said. “This is my last time to take it (this
year), or I have to stay back and take it again. I’m not really
up for that.”
Dina Gerdeman may be reached at email@example.com.
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