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College & Workforce Readiness

Staying the Course

Massachusetts has not backed away from high standards, even as some needy schools struggle to keep up.
By John Gehring — January 03, 2006 6 min read
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Massachusetts has become something of an education policy star over the past decade. Its system of standards and assessment has attracted national kudos, while its political establishment has stayed the course on controversial exit exams and invested heavily in education. And though the state is still struggling to turn around numerous low-performing schools, it excels overall on such measures of student performance as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The progress has not come easily.


A Small Wonder
Big States, Big Results
The Road Less Traveled
Staying the Course
Investing in the Future
Playing Catch-Up
Table of Contents

Signs of change emerged in the early 1990s, when business leaders began clamoring for high school graduates who had more than a diploma. Too many students, they said, were graduating without the kind of skills required to meet the demands of a fast-changing global economy. And many students who made it to college needed remedial classes just to stay afloat.

Lawmakers heard the message.

In 1993, the Massachusetts legislature passed landmark K-12 education reform legislation. Then-Gov. William F. Weld signed the legislation into law, ushering in state academic standards and paving the way for accountability testing.

The law marked a move away from local control of education and gave the state a bigger role in raising achievement. The state also came up with money to back the higher expectations. Over a seven-year period beginning in 1993, the state greatly hiked funding to districts and fine-tuned its curriculum standards.

“Everything here starts with the Education Reform Act,” says David P. Driscoll, the state commissioner of education since 1999. “People realized if you set standards and stick with it, good things will happen.”

But the most significant milestone came in the 2001-02 school year, when students were required for the first time to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams in English and mathematics to graduate from high school.

The change provoked a widespread backlash. Students boycotted the MCAS tests. Protesters marched on the Statehouse. Critics maintained that having a single exam determine a student’s academic fate was a form of educational malpractice that would fall most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable students.

While the MCAS doesn’t lack critics, and many teachers still chafe at the effects of high-stakes testing on classroom practice, much of the furor has faded. Higher passing rates have helped dampen past discord. More than 90 percent of students in the state are now passing the tests, and the state’s education, business, and political leaders still strongly back the MCAS.

“In the final analysis,” Driscoll says, “the test is the one thing that has driven education reform more than anything else.”

Steady Progress

Massachusetts’ strong system of standards and accountability exams has prepared students for success on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the commissioner and other education leaders believe. NAEP tests capture national snapshots of how 4th, 8th, and 12th graders perform in a variety of subjects.

Most notably, after starting ahead of the national average in 1992 on NAEP exams, Massachusetts has continued to make significant gains. For example, the state’s 8th grade math score rose from 273 in 1992 to 292 last year on a 500-point scale—a gain of about two grade levels.

Vital Statistics
Public schools1,860
Public school teachers72,062
Pre-K-12 students980,459
Annual pre-K-12 expenditures$10.3 billion
Minority students25.4%
Children in poverty13%
Students with disabilities15.7%
English-language learners5%

In 2005, the state had the highest proportion of students at or above the “proficient” level in the nation—more than four in 10—in reading and math in grades 4 and 8. Moreover, it’s done so while significantly improving the performance of low-income students over the past decade. For example, in 8th grade reading, low-income students had the second-biggest gain in the nation from 1998 to 2005 (9 points), while in 8th grade math, their progress was nearly double that of the nation from 1996 to 2005.

The state has also narrowed the achievement gap between black and white students and between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites in 4th grade math.

But while the state has had some success shrinking academic gaps between different racial and ethnic groups, such disparities remain one of the state’s greatest challenges. On the 4th and 8th grade 2005 NAEP results for reading and math, the state showed gaps of at least 24 points between blacks and whites, and between Hispanics and whites.

While its black-white gaps were similar to those in other states, Massachusetts’ gaps between Hispanics and whites were larger than the national average.

Some observers contend that inequitable school funding has contributed to those gaps. A lawsuit filed in 1999 argued that the state’s school finance system had resulted in an uneven implementation of state standards.

But in a 5-2 decision in February 2005, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld that finance system. The high court acknowledged the considerable challenges many districts face, but noted that the state has invested a total of $30 billion in K-12 education over the past decade and continues to narrow the funding gaps between poor and wealthy districts.

Maintaining an Edge

Massachusetts 8th graders have consistently outperformed the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam. In 1996, there was no significant difference between low-income Massachusetts students and their peers nationwide. But by 2005, low-income students in the state were leading the pack.


Note: Data for low-income students are not available from 1992. Accommodations were not permitted for students with disabilities and English-language learners in 1992 and 1996.

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

While state aid to schools benefited from a strong economy in the 1990s, however, the spending increases have all but flattened out over the past few years. From fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2004, for example, K-12 state aid fell slightly, from $3.2 billion to $3.1 billion. As a result, districts already stretched thin by spiraling health-care costs and other rising expenses are struggling to keep up with the new academic demands.

“Like a lot of states and the federal government, we set very high standards, but we didn’t pay as much attention as we could have to building capacity,” says S. Paul Reville, who helped write the education reform law as a member of the state board of education and is the executive director of the Boston-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy at MassInc.

Indeed, setting standards is one thing, but providing the resources and staff training to reach them is another, says Reville. “This whole matter of capacity-building, and the support needed to achieve higher standards, is a huge new job,” he says. “We are asking educators to do more, and they are really feeling the pinch in the sense that they are expected to do more with less.”

Growing Demands

The next decade of school improvement efforts in Massachusetts must confront a growing number of tough questions, Reville says.

“How do we address the challenges of underperforming schools, now that we have an accountability system up and operating and we’re pointing the fingers at districts not making progress?” he asks. “What is the response to get these schools on track? It’s not good enough to have an accountability system that simply points the fingers of blame.”

Glen Koocher, the president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which represents local school boards, says teachers and district leaders already feel overwhelmed by the demands of a state accountability system that now includes the added requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“The regulation-and-punishment culture has outdone itself in Massachusetts,” he says. “The state department of education is woefully under capacity, and regulatory mandates have expanded.”

High school graduation rates have fallen from 76.2 percent in 1992-93 to 70 percent in 2001-02, a decline that some attribute to the state’s graduation tests.

To maintain success in a climate of weaker revenue receipts and growing accountability requires more targeted and efficient responses by local and state officials, according to William H. Guenther, the president of Mass Insight Education, an education research and advocacy group in Boston.

“We need to redouble our efforts to invest in the right places and create a new model for working conditions for teachers and administrators,” he says.


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