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 Article of Interest - Testing

For special education students, the MCAS can be a nightmare
by Dina Gerdeman, The Patriot Ledger, February 25, 2003

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Every night, Jonathan Galina lies awake in bed with the same thought: “I’m not going to school tomorrow. I quit.”

Galina, a Randolph High School senior with a learning disability, is worried that he might not see graduation day in June because he can’t pass the MCAS.

And if he doesn’t pass the test and can’t get a high school diploma, Galina wonders if he will ever finish college, get a decent job, leave home. He spends a good part of each day worrying about the test, stressing about his future.

“It scares me. I feel very stressed out,’’ Galina said, staring at his hands. “I feel that I’m a failure.’’

Galina is among the 10,500 high school seniors, including more than 375 on the South Shore, who are feeling intense pressure to pass the MCAS test as the clock ticks closer to graduation. Starting with his Class of 2003, students must pass the English and math portions of the 10th-grade MCAS to graduate.

More than a third of the seniors statewide who have yet to pass the exam are special needs students like Galina. About 40 percent of the 42 seniors at Randolph High School who have failed the MCAS are in the special education program; 39 percent of the 46 MCAS failures at Weymouth High School have special needs; and about two-thirds of the students in Plymouth and Holbrook who are on the failure list are special needs students.

The majority of special needs students are required to pass the MCAS to graduate, although they may be provided with accommodations, such as taking the test in small groups, in short intervals or for longer periods. Only 1,257 students in the Class of 2003 - those with the most severe disabilities - are being judged on a portfolio of their work rather than the MCAS.

Galina’s disability is not severe enough to allow him to escape the MCAS. Yet, after failing the math and English sections of the MCAS twice, -- he believes his learning disability is preventing him from conquering the exam. “It scares me. I feel very stressed out. I feel that I’m a failure.’’

Galina’s learning problem was diagnosed in preschool, when a teacher noticed he had trouble concentrating and understanding directions. He repeated preschool and has been in special education classes in Randolph schools ever since.

It takes Galina longer to process and absorb information, and he has trouble remembering information from one day to the next. When Galina is asked a question, he often pauses a few beats before answering, chewing over a response in his mind.

“You could teach Jonathan something on Friday and have to go over the entire thing again on Monday,’’ said Dorothy Soufy, a special education teacher at Randolph High. “If you bring him through something step by step, he can follow. But if you ask him to do it independently, he’s lost.”

Galina said it takes him much longer than the average student to complete every assignment.

“I’ll read a one-page story and answer six questions, and that could take me a couple days,’’ he said. “Keeping information in my mind is hard.”

The wide learning gap between Galina and his peers is apparent. For example, the math portion of the MCAS covers algebra and geometry in depth, but Galina is still working on fractions, percentages and decimals, and is just starting to break into pre-algebra, Soufy said.

In early December, shortly before attempting the MCAS for the third time, Galina was visibly nervous. He thumbed through practice tests and a nearly 500-page study guide filled with math questions he didn’t have a clue how to answer. He felt overwhelmed, but he was still trying, still resisting the urge to give up.

Days before the test, math tutor Larry Larson was working with Galina one-on-one in school. He was mapping out all the possible number combinations in a roll of two dice on an overhead projector.

“When you throw one die, what can you get for numbers?” Larson asked. Galina, sitting stiffly in his chair, stared wide-eyed at Larson. He looked confused.

“You can get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6,’’ Larson offered. “If you roll two dice, you can get 1 and 3. What’s another outcome you can get if you throw the dice?”

“Two and 4,’’ Galina answered correctly.

“Right. What’s another outcome?”

Galina paused to think. “Eight and 10,’’ he guessed incorrectly.

And the lesson continued that way, Galina answering about half the questions right and taking incorrect stabs in the dark at the others. He relied on Larson to walk him through each question slowly. He consulted his calculator to multiply six times six.

“You’re relying on the calculator, but you may not be able to use it on this part of the test,’’ Larson warned.

“I don’t understand it at all,’’ Galina later confessed about the math lesson. “I can do it with (Larson), but when I try to do it myself, my brain freezes. It’s like another language to me.”

Larson is working on boosting Galina’s confidence as much as he’s trying to brush up on his math skills. “I feel discriminated against,’’ he said. “Everybody learns different, but this is one size fits all.’’

“We tell him not to read a problem and say, ‘I can’t do it,’” Larson said. “We’ve tried to convince him he can do more than he thinks he can.’’

Yet Larson often feels he is not getting through to Galina. It is a daunting task to teach him in a matter of months material he has never encountered in his four years of high school.

“Some days in class, I get the feeling I’m talking to myself,’’ Larson said. “He’s here, he’s paying attention, his eyes are open, he’s looking at the overhead, but he doesn’t see anything. I’m talking about things he has never had before. We don’t have time to develop the entire lesson.’’

No one agrees more than Galina. His head is swimming with all the questions he knows he can’t answer.

The first time he attempted the MCAS in his sophomore year, he was unable to understand most of the questions, so he left school after the first day of testing and didn’t return until it was over.

“He was totally distraught and almost didn’t come back,’’ Soufy said. “We had to call him at home and convince him.’’

Galina, who had repeated ninth grade, went through a serious slump, missing a lot of school and opting to skip the MCAS retest in the spring of 2001, too overwhelmed to attempt it. But after nearly giving up on high school in his sophomore year, Galina rallied in his junior year and became determined to beat the test. He rarely misses a day of school, and his grades improved. He now earns mostly A’s and B’s and even made the honor roll in his senior year.

Galina signed up for every MCAS tutorial the school offered: summer classes, Saturday courses and special in-school courses.

“He has an unbelievable work ethic,’’ Soufy said. “He never says, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ He always plugs along. It’s not a matter of effort.”

Now, Galina, 21, is anxiously waiting for the results of the December retest, which are expected to be released in early March. If Galina and other test-takers do not pass the December test, they will not receive diplomas along with their classmates during graduation ceremonies in June. Although another retest will be offered in May, the results of that test will not be available in time for graduation.

Just like most high school seniors, Galina has big dreams - dreams that require at least a high school diploma. He has thought about becoming a social worker in the criminal justice system. Or he would love to work as a veterinary technician.

The soft-spoken Galina, who has few friends at Randolph High, focuses his affection on his many pets: three Labrador retriever puppies, four cats, three parrots, a parakeet and a hamster. His parents bought two of the Lab puppies recently to help take his mind off the MCAS.
the state on behalf of special needs students. He is calling lawyers and legislators, hoping to find someone to help.

“I feel discriminated against,’’ he said. “Everybody learns different, but this is one size fits all.’’

It is breaking his parents’ hearts to watch their son focus almost too much energy on this one all-important test.

“Sometimes he talks about it morning to night. He will cry and say, ‘I want to become somebody. How am I going to do that without a diploma?’’’ his mother, Barbara Galina, said. “It’s the most important thing in the world to him, to get that diploma.’’

Dina Gerdeman may be reached at

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