With regard to high-stakes testing, Massachusetts is often offered as a barometer of success. But when the Bay State implemented its oft-cited education reform law in 1993, it also invested $2 billion new dollars into its system. And even in spite of the new funds, education activists say the 20-year-old graduation requirement has one of the widest achievement gaps in the nation.
“The evidence we have gathered strongly suggests that two of the three major ‘reforms’ launched in the wake of the 1993 law — high-stakes testing and Commonwealth charter schools — have failed to deliver on their promises,” according Citizens for Public Education, a Mass.-based group that put together this must-read report for anyone interested in the highly-charged political issue of using the NECAP as a graduation requirement. “On the other hand, the third major component of the law, providing an influx of more than $2 billion in state funding for our schools, had a powerfully positive impact on our classrooms.”
While education reformers often note that Mass has the highest test scores in the nation, they don’t often add that the achievement gap is among the worst in the nation.
Here are some of the highlights from the report:
- On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though our average results place us at the top of all states, Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Massachusetts has some of the widest gaps in the nation between White and Hispanic students, a sign that the English immersion policy created by the Unz initiative has failed.
- Massachusetts ranks 31st of 49 states for the gap between Black and White student graduation rates (with 1st meaning that the gap is the smallest) and 39th of 47 states for the size of the gap between Hispanic and White student graduation rates. For students with disabilities, Massachusetts’ four-year graduation rate is only 64.9 percent, which ranks the state at 28th out of the 45 states with available data in 2009.2 A significant reason for this low figure is the impact of the MCAS graduation requirement on this subgroup.
- National research and surveys of Massachusetts teachers found the focus on preparing students for high-stakes MCAS tests has contributed to a narrowing of school curricula, most severely in districts serving low-income students. Nationally, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) reported in 20073 that time spent on subjects other than math and reading had been cut by nearly a third since 2002, because, as CEP President and CEO Jack Jennings put it, “What gets tested gets taught.”
Rhode Island’s achievement gap continues to get wider, and for Latino students is one of the widest in the nation. Education officials have said addressing the achievement gap is among the state’s highest priorities.
Sam Zurier, a Providence City Councilor and education attorney, said the state’s failure to implement a fair funding formula is one of the reasons using the NECAP test as a graduation requirement targets poor and minority students for failure. Zurier is representing the school districts of Pawtucket and Woonsocket, who say the new education funding formula is unfair to their communities.
“RIDE’s current message is that Massachusetts demonstrates that high stakes testing causes student achievement to improve,” he said. “This has it exactly backwards. You have to invest the resources to improve the system before you impose high stakes testing.”
Before instituting the NECAP, Massachusetts approved the Education Reform Act of 1993. The Act included a significant increase of State aid so that it would amount to 48% of the total budget, versus around 35% in RI. (In recent years, the Mass. state share has been reduced to 40%-45%, but they are still reaping the benefits of several decades of higher investments.) The Massachusetts funding formula is superior to RI’s in a number of ways, including funding the entire education program, not just the “market basket” of selected services. The 1993 Act also increased the resources the State Department of Education had to provide technical support to local school districts that needed help.