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