Massachusetts’ landmark education reform law turned 20 this month, with a consensus that the law that has been a solid, if not unalloyed, success.
The statute, which matched a major increase in state funding with higher standards and accountability, has helped boost Massachusetts to nation-leading academic performances in math and English, while shining a light on the needs of struggling students.
Challenges remain, of course, especially in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, which education reform has helped illuminate. But with most states now embracing the Common Core curriculum in an effort to boost educational performance, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the Bay State experience.
First, success requires unity of purpose. The law here worked in no small part because state leaders were united not just on the need to pass reform, but also to see it through. That determination extended beyond Beacon Hill. Civic leaders like the late Jack Rennie of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education helped bring the business community to the cause.
Second, education reform took a real fiscal commitment, one that was sustained even through tough budgetary times.
Third, there have to be consequences attached to the endeavor. The widespread failure rate before the state’s MCAS exam started to count — and the dramatic improvement in the passing rate once it did — suggests that high-school students won’t take such a test seriously unless passing it is a graduation requirement.
But if the various states do adopt one of the exams currently being developed as a gateway graduation test, the experience here also strongly suggests that some students will need several opportunities, and extra help addressing their educational weaknesses, before they pass.
One important decision that evolved over time here was to keep the passing bar at a basic level, but to focus school efforts on a higher level of achievement.
The Massachusetts test has several scoring ranges: failing; needs improvement, which is the passing level; proficient, which signifies a solid understanding of subject matter; and advanced, which indicates an in-depth mastery. Although a student can pass the MCAS by scoring at the needs-improvement level, the state has emphasized lifting students to proficiency.
That differentiated approach helped ease fears that the “high-stakes” test would decimate graduation hopes, even while setting school sights on a more ambitious level of accomplishment.
Those are some of the elements that have made education reform a success here. Other states should consider those lessons as they move forward with the Common Core.