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Opinion | Thomas Birmingham

Why Mass. must not let up on testing students

A Hopkinton math teacher prepared her students for MCAS tests.Janet Knott

Massachusetts’ story is well known in the education world. In the wake of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, student achievement shot up, and the Commonwealth’s students became the nation’s best performers.

The law worked not only because it was good policy, but because the grand bargain at its core — a massive infusion of new state money in return for high standards and enhanced accountability — was politically viable. Parts of it have come under attack in the intervening decades, but a Massachusetts Teachers Association bill that would place a three-year moratorium on the graduation requirement that public school students pass state tests in English, math, and science represents the first frontal assault on the core principles of reform.


The moratorium on high-stakes testing flouts high standards and accountability. Nonetheless, the MTA still proposes massive increases in state spending on K-12 education.

My criticism of the MTA comes from the perspective of one who has dedicated a career to supporting organized labor. Before entering politics, I spent more than a decade as a union-side labor lawyer. When I ran for governor in 2002, I was — and remain — proud to have been endorsed by both statewide teachers unions, the MTA and the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts.

Education reform has served Massachusetts well. In 2005, our students became the first ever to place number one in the country on reading and math at both grade levels (fourth and eighth) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They repeated this feat every time the tests were administered through 2013. Massachusetts students have also become globally competitive, having tied for first in eighth-grade science in international math and science testing.

Success hasn’t prevented efforts to dilute high standards and accountability. In 2009 the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, despite its inclusion in the 1993 state law, postponed adding US history to the list of subjects in which students would have to pass a state test in order to graduate from high school. The following year, the Commonwealth replaced its stellar English and math standards with weaker national standards known as Common Core. New science standards adopted more recently are also less rigorous than their predecessors.


Retreat has taken a toll. For the first time in a decade, Massachusetts students did not run the table on NAEP in 2015. Between 2009 and 2015, 32 states and the District of Columbia had better rates of improvement on the tests than Massachusetts.

State SAT scores are also well below their 2006 peak. In addition, the percentage of students scoring Advanced or Proficient on the MCAS third-grade reading test — the best predictor of future academic success — dropped 10 points between 2002 and 2013.

Emboldened by its big win in last year’s charter school ballot initiative, the MTA is now taking aim at the heart of reform. The bill, which has more than 100 legislative cosponsors, attempts to capitalize on a strong anti-testing backlash in the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which imposed onerous testing requirements on states.

But education reform in Massachusetts required students to spend only about one-third of the time in standardized testing that No Child Left Behind mandated. MCAS tests the basic literacy and numeracy skills that students need. And even though it is among the most rigorous state tests, the 10th-grade exam still requires students to perform only at around an eighth-grade level, with up to five chances to pass.


If state leaders believe our students are being tested too much, they should seek a waiver from annual federal testing requirements, not place a moratorium on high-stakes testing. Given our outstanding record, Massachusetts would be uniquely positioned to receive such a waiver.

High-stakes testing is an important component of the standards and accountability pieces of education reform. Dismantling it is a step backward that would endanger many of the gains Massachusetts has achieved and place the Commonwealth at risk of falling back to the middle of the educational pack.

Tom Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and a distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.