Fear of Failure
Tattered Dreams
So Close
MCAS story updates

All Hull High school seniors pass the test.
Read story 3-6-03

Schools fear students will drop out after MCAS.
Story 3-4-03

Students Jennifer Mueller, Muna Bittar, Jonathan Galina and Joe Cao pass the MCAS after retesting.
Galina 2-28-03

Others 2-27-03


A decade of education reform culminates this year when a students' eligibility for a high school diploma hinges on a single test for the first time in state history.

Yet four months before graduation, one in six high school seniors has yet to pass the MCAS exam.

The Patriot Ledger examines this issue, beginning with this three-part series by staff writer .

MCAS honor roll chart

South Shore results chart

Pop-up chart on MCAS Failure Rate

Pop-up chart to see who is failing

Making the Grade graphic by MICHAEL BERTRAND
/The Patriot Ledger

After consulting mathematicians, state officials agreed to count a second answer - Jennifer Mueller’s - as correct on an MCAS question. The discovery led to a statewide change in exam scores for many students, allowing an additional 449 to become eligible for diplomas.

Student stumped MCAS test,
and vice versa

GARY 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
hasn't passed

The Patriot Ledger

ennifer 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 like Mueller.

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 more times.

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 pictures.

“I kept reading the questions and drawing circles, dots, lines and dashes, trying to come up with another way of looking at them,” she said.

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 is commendable.”

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 score.

“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."

Laura Hollis,
Mueller's mother

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 again.

“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 dgerdeman@ledger.com.

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