Study: Ed Reform Has Improved Academic Performance and Equity

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Eliminating MCAS would weaken accountability, deprive state of data needed to drive high-quality instruction

BOSTON — Over the past 30 years, rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability for outcomes have propelled Massachusetts public schools to become the nation’s best. Taking away the high-stakes component of MCAS would weaken the accountability system and lead stakeholders to de-emphasize the assessment data that drives high-quality instruction, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

“Preserving the most important aspects of the current accountability system is critical if the Commonwealth is to fulfill its constitutional obligation to educate all children to a common high standard,” said Dr. Cara Candal, author of “MCAS, NAEP, and Educational Accountability.”

Before the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993, the Commonwealth had academic standards and curriculum frameworks but didn’t hold schools accountable for teaching them. Many schools and teachers chose not to teach to the standards.

Education reform provided adequate resources linked to measurable outcomes. Beginning with the class of 2003, public school students had to pass MCAS English language arts (ELA) and math tests to graduate from high school.

Implementation of the law coincided with Massachusetts students becoming the country’s best performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Commonwealth’s students became globally competitive on international assessments, and both SAT scores and high school graduation rates rose.

Education reform also required the Commonwealth to disaggregate MCAS data by student subgroup. Despite statewide success, low-income students too often lacked access to the best-performing schools, although some charter public schools proved the exception. Many consistently outperformed the surrounding school districts while enrolling higher rates of low-income students.

Even as income-based achievement gaps remained, Massachusetts made better progress than other states. Between 2006 and 2016, a gap of 23 percentage points between the statewide average in MCAS math scores and the math scores of low-income students narrowed to just 8 percentage points.

The Commonwealth’s accountability system shines a light on the extent to which schools are helping students meet state standards. When schools are not succeeding, it provides a mechanism to intervene with needed supports.

Watering down the system could leave the state without the data it needs to know when intervention is merited. This is particularly important as it relates to diagnosing widespread and devastating pandemic learning loss and determining how to address it.

Performance-based assessments can be useful but are not appropriate for high-stakes situations because they’re not as reliable and require much more time on task for students and teachers. Under such a regime, far more time would be dedicated to assessment than is currently the case.

Such assessments are also unlikely to meet federal funding standards for understanding student outcomes at the individual, subgroup, and aggregate levels.

Among Dr. Candal’s recommendations are ensuring timely assessment results, and training teachers and parents to understand MCAS data and use it to drive instruction.  She also urges the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to assist schools and districts in performing an assessment audit to allow for more instruction time by avoiding tests that don’t provide the kind of high-quality information about mastery of standards that MCAS does.