Special Report

State Standards Loom Large in Mass. Classrooms

By Erik W. Robelen — January 07, 2010 11 min read
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Susan E. Szachowicz still recalls the dismay she felt when the school where she is now principal got word of its first results on Massachusetts’ new statewide tests more than a decade ago.

Three-quarters of the 10th graders at Brockton High School failed the mathematics exam that year, 1998. Nearly half didn’t pass the English/language arts test.

“It kind of slaps you across the face,” says Szachowicz, who at the time was a history teacher and the head of the social science department at Brockton High, an urban campus of nearly 4,300 students serving a diverse and largely low-income population in this city some 30 miles south of Boston. “Even if people are critical of too much emphasis on the test, ... you can’t blame a test for that kind of failure.”

Szachowicz says the poor results spurred her school to action. After all, starting with the class of 2003, students across the state would have to pass the English and math tests to graduate.

Much has changed at Brockton High since then, not the least of which are its test scores, which have soared, attracting widespread recognition. The school’s shift has included a thorough overhaul of its academic program.

Szachowicz says Brockton High, the largest high school in the state, has taken great pains to see that instruction across all core subjects is more rigorous and is closely aligned with the Massachusetts state standards, which are widely seen as among the best and most demanding in the nation.

The high-stakes exit exams have been a central part of the state’s efforts to ensure that the standards don’t simply collect dust. After all, it’s one thing to set high standards; it’s another to influence what goes on in thousands of classrooms statewide.

“The best standards in the world are meaningless if they don’t change the way teachers teach,” says Craig D. Jerald, a Washington-based education consultant. (Jerald was a technical adviser for this year’s Quality Counts and was the project director for the report’s 1997 to 2000 editions.)

It’s hard to say for sure the extent to which the Massachusetts standards—or any state’s, for that matter—have penetrated into schools and classrooms, though a variety of education leaders and analysts suggest the Bay State has made important inroads.

“We think they’ve had a powerful impact,” says S. Paul Reville, the state’s secretary of education, pointing to the testing program, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, as a key driver. “The MCAS is the main instrument through which the standards reach schools. And the schools are now highly focused on their MCAS performance.”

States Look to Their Peers

Many states look to their neighbors to inform the writing and rewriting of their own academic-content standards. In fact, 30 states were cited as influencing the way in which their peers defined expectations for student learning and performance in either English/language arts or mathematics. The standards of California, Indiana, and Massachusetts were most frequently mentioned as models, with each cited at least 10 times by other states.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2010

The state has made notable gains on the MCAS in math and English/language arts over the past decade at most grade levels, with some of the strongest improvements among 10th graders. It has also posted increases over time on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often known as “the nation’s report card,” and has some of the highest average NAEP scores of any state.

A 2008 survey of some 40,000 Massachusetts educators found that more than nine in 10 teachers and administrators agreed either “strongly” or “somewhat” that the curriculum in their schools was aligned to the state standards.

And yet, a 2006 report by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank in Boston, suggested many school districts still weren’t entirely on board.

Drawing on state audits of 76 of Massachusetts’ nearly 400 districts, the study found that 58 percent of those districts reviewed between 2003 and 2005 were deemed “below satisfactory” for curriculum alignment to the state standards and implementation. (The independent state agency that conducted those audits has since been effectively disbanded.)

William H. Guenther, the president of the Mass Insight Education & Research Institute in Boston, says that while he believes the state has made big strides since the standards were first developed in the mid-1990s, he still finds an uneven embrace across schools.

“Even in the best of states like Massachusetts, where we’ve got leading standards and a first-rate, aligned test, there are schools and districts that haven’t yet gotten the message,” says Guenther, whose research and advocacy organization has worked closely with a network of districts to help implement the standards.

Alignment Challenge

Still, Massachusetts may have a leg up on other states in driving its standards into the classroom, because of what experts describe as the strong alignment between its standards and the MCAS. After all, if state assessments don’t test students on the standards, it’s far less likely that those standards will affect instruction.

“The degree of alignment between a state’s test and standards varies quite a bit from state to state, but it’s a lot lower than you might expect,” says Andrew J. Porter, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-author of an upcoming study that examines several aspects of state assessments, including such alignment. “In fact, a state’s test is typically no more aligned to its own standards than it is to another state’s standards,” says Porter, who was a technical adviser for Quality Counts 2010.

Meanwhile, a 2007 study by the RAND Corp. on the school-level impact of standards-based reforms offers some insights, based on surveys of educators in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

“Large majorities of teachers said they did in fact try to align their instruction with the standards,” says Laura Hamilton, a senior social scientist at RAND, a research group based in Santa Monica, Calif. “But they also pointed out some of the ways in which this is challenging. A lot of them said there’s too much material in the standards, or the standards aren’t very clear.”

Enlisting Teachers

Massachusetts was one of the earliest entrants into the era of so-called standards-based reform through the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, enacted in 1993, which dramatically stepped up the state’s role in K-12 schooling.

The wide-ranging package included provisions to increase state funding for education and help equalize spending across districts. At the same time, it called for the development of academic standards—called curriculum frameworks—across core disciplines and for them to be aligned with assessments. Accountability measures included a requirement that all students pass high school exit exams to graduate.

Observers say the state frameworks were crafted to be rigorous, clear, and easy to use, with K-12 educators invited to assist in drafting them. Szachowicz, the principal at Brockton High, for instance, helped write the history standards when she was still a teacher.

“It helps a lot to have high-quality standards that teachers might actually want to use, so that they sell themselves,” says Guenther, from Mass Insight.

A variety of teachers at Brockton High say they generally like the standards.

“The standards are ... user-friendly,” says Jodie Nelson-Holzman, who teaches English/language arts. “They’re posted on my wall in my classroom, and my students refer to them constantly.”

In addition to setting accessible standards and seeking to tightly align assessments to them, Massachusetts supplies schools with detailed reports on how individual students perform on each test item, with corresponding links to the state curriculum frameworks.

The state also took steps to embed the standards into teacher tests and revisions to teacher-certification requirements, said Sandra Stotsky, a former senior official in the state education department who led that effort and now serves on the state board of education.

In general, Massachusetts students must pass the exams in English/language arts, math, and, starting with the class of 2010, science and technology/engineering, to earn a high school diploma. They may take exams multiple times if needed. Last year, however, the state postponed a high-stakes history and social studies test for at least two years, citing budgetary concerns.

David P. Driscoll, who stepped down in 2007 as the Massachusetts commissioner of education after serving for nearly a decade, suggests the high-stakes testing has been the primary driver for getting the standards into classrooms.

“It counts,” he says. “Students have to pass the 10th grade tests in order to get a diploma.”

Says Szachowicz from Brockton High: “Let me just tell you, kids pay attention.”

‘Too Much Testing’?

The use of the MCAS tests for accountability purposes has faced plenty of criticism.

“For a decade-plus now, people have used test scores to punish and blame schools and teachers,” says Paul Toner, the vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “Teachers think there’s too much testing, too much emphasis on test results.”

He suggests that most teachers think tying the high school tests to graduation is a mistake.

But many teachers at Brockton High don’t seem to share that view.

Mary C. Collins, who teaches history and sociology, was opposed to the exit exams when she first started teaching, but not anymore.

“Now that we all know how to actually get the kids to be successful [on the MCAS], it’s the exact same thing as how we would make them successful to achieve all their graduation requirements anyway,” she says. “None of our kids who are on track to graduate are going to fail this test.”

“You realize that without high stakes, we probably wouldn’t have pushed the students as hard, because we didn’t need to,” adds Michele M. Finnegan, who teaches history and heads the school’s social science department.

Another criticism of the Massachusetts standards effort is that the state has failed to do enough to help districts meet the standards, from aligning their curricula to improving their instruction and academic performance.

Secretary Reville, who served on the state board of education when the 1993 education law was passed, doesn’t dispute that.

“As a state overall in the 16 years of education reform since 1993, we’ve underemphasized building the capacity of districts to deliver high-quality curriculum and instruction,” he says. “Until we work harder at building capacity, ... we’re not going to attain our standards.”

A Schoolwide Approach

The state standards and the MCAS have heavily influenced Brockton High’s approach to curriculum and instruction, says Szachowicz, though she emphasizes that the standards have not led to narrow “teaching to the test” just to push up student scores.

Close scrutiny of the annual test data has helped the school figure out areas that need extra focus, she says. Such analysis led the school early in the 2000s to develop a schoolwide literacy initiative that focuses on reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning.

“The content standards lay out what we have to teach, but the literacy initiative says, ‘Here’s how kids need to be able to demonstrate it,’ ” Szachowicz says.

Schoolwide means literacy skills are taught in math class, art and cooking courses, and even gym class. Likewise, the school has taken steps more recently to foster key math skills, such as making graphs, in other disciplines.

“We’ve asked art teachers, we’ve asked gym teachers to do graphs,” says Nelson-Holzman, the English/language arts teacher.

Szachowicz says the schoolwide approach reinforces the lessons for students in various contexts while enabling the school to offer a diverse menu of course options.

“In some schools, they’ve taken away electives, having double math, double English” in response to the MCAS, she says. “The route we went is, ‘Let’s take the skills kids need and infuse them into all subject areas.’ ”

State Recognition

The school’s efforts appear to be showing results: To recognize Brockton High’s progress, Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, visited the school in September to publicly announce the latest statewide MCAS results.

Overall, 94 percent of Brockton High 10th graders passed the English exam from last spring, with 78 percent achieving a rating of “proficient” or “advanced.” In math, 85 percent passed, with 60 percent proficient or advanced. Although the percentage reaching proficiency or higher in math was well below the statewide figure of 75 percent, the results were a far cry from the 7 percent who scored at those levels back in 1998, and reflect steady improvement over time.

In addition, the school met state performance targets last year for all subgroups of students required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, such as groupings by race and socioeconomic status. The state education agency said that Brockton High’s MCAS performance was among the strongest in the state for a school with its low-income demographic.

Stepping back, Szachowicz says that while many factors have contributed to the school’s gains over time—and several outside observers, including Secretary Reville, suggest her leadership has been critical—the principal believes the heart of the matter is “great instruction” tied to high standards.

“It’s about what happens in the classroom between the students and the teachers,” she says. “The teachers know clearly what they have to teach, and they teach it well.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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