Tough-talking members of the regional high school committee questioned last week whether they want to play the high-stakes game known as MCAS and make passing the standardized test a requirement for graduation.

This is supposed to be the year when performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test determines whether a high school student earns a diploma or not.

Between 18 and 24 incoming seniors are at risk of failing the test after three attempts to achieve a passing score. They will have another shot this November when they sit down for a less difficult version of the exam.

But when the issue came up at last week's school committee meeting, some school leaders began blasting the idea of putting so much weight on a single test.

"I flat out don't agree with keeping a kid back because they don't pass a standardized test. It doesn't tell us how much knowledge a child has retained," said committee member Robert Tankard, who is also the former principal of the West Tisbury School.

"If this is how we teach kids to learn, by giving them this one test, then we're in bad shape," Mr. Tankard continued.

The committee stopped well short of taking any official action on MCAS. Currently, the high school policy states that beginning with the class of 2003, students must pass the English and math portions of the MCAS test in order to graduate.

But the tide of opinion from this committee was clearly moving toward defiance.

"Falmouth [schools] have already said [they] are issuing diplomas regardless of MCAS," said committee member Ralph Friedman, who went on to question the logic of denying a diploma to a student who has fulfilled all other graduation requirements and then "for whatever reason is not successful in this one standardized test."

Committee members were also especially worried that failure at MCAS would lead directly to students dropping out of school.

"We need to try everything humanly possible to get these kids to graduate," said committee member Leslie Baynes.

High school principal Peg Regan told the committee that the school has already helped to cut in half the number of failures on the math test by sending students to a math tutor in the high school's math lab.

Mrs. Regan, who remained mostly silent during last week's discussion, told the Gazette yesterday that she supports keeping MCAS as a graduation requirement.

"I have faith in the process," she said. "Keeping it as a graduation requirement gets kids to take it seriously. We've been moving toward this for three years in terms of making it a graduation requirement."

She is also convinced that the school can help further reduce the number of students who fail MCAS.

"If we narrow it down to specific students who are not successful on this test, then we may have a better argument around why it should be waived for certain students," she said.

State education officials, she said, are still trying to establish an appeals procedure which could allow some students to graduate even if they can't pass the MCAS test.

Also, school leaders point out that state funding and school aid are tied to a school's compliance with MCAS mandates coming from Boston.

"A lot of money we've taken from the state is connected to this," said school committee member Tim Dobel.

In other school news, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash told high school committee members that he has selected a theme for the new academic year that emphasizes what he called "truth in learning and truth in teaching."

"We need to develop informed, critical thinkers who can be influential in our democracy," Mr. Cash said. "I want people to stand up and speak out on issues occurring in our society. I hear a deafening silence in our country."

Mr. Cash made it clear that he was upset about political developments on a national and international scale.

"Right now we are falling for everything," he said. "We need thorough and open debate, thoughtful, deep rich coverage on issues. The P.C. days have got to be over."