Is student achievement in Massachusetts falling flat?

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The short answer that will come in this and blog posts in the next days is, in important ways, yes. So why the image of a big churn?

Let’s start with the immediate news of this past year’s MCAS data and what they tell us. The Globe’s Peter Schworm, in a piece entitled MCAS scores appear stuck in stubborn income gap, nailed it in three places:

Educators have made only modest gains in narrowing the gulf in achievement between low-income students and those who are better off…

The percentage of [low-income] 10th graders who were proficient at English, for instance, rose from 48 in 2007 to 69 this year. In math, the figure climbed from 47 percent to 56 percent…

In third-grade English, 40 percent of low-income students were proficient, compared with 61 percent of all students…

The editorial board of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette gave a useful view of the data from the capital of Central Massachusetts. In a piece entitled Lagging behind, two big points jump off the page:

[O]verall scores for the city’s district public schools exhibited a general decline as compared to a year ago…

Comparing the 2011 scores with those of 2008, it is clear that progress over three years has been modest in some grades and subject areas, flat in many and even declining in a few.

To my mind, there are two points that frame the puzzle before Massachusetts—and they are both present in Schworm’s piece. First, Schworm cites Margaret Blood, president of Strategies for Children, as highlighting that

Research has shown that most students who struggle with reading in third-grade will continue to struggle in school, and are at much greater risk of dropping out.

Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the DC Public Schools and today the head of StudentsFirst, noted back in 2008 that she used to get queries from construction consultants for data on third grade reading scores. She noted that they were trying to understand the demand for prison cells.

I’ll let you think that through for a second without editorial comment on my part.

Massachusetts is falling behind on exactly this measure—and for some time. Already back in 2009, Pioneer noted in Education Next that there was trouble brewing in third-grade achievement:

MCAS math scores in 2008 were up by just a single percentage point in three elementary grades, and early-grade MCAS English Language Arts (ELA) scores, which are the best predictors of future success, fell the most. In fact, ELA scores for 2008 were either down or flat in six out of seven grades.

The reply from the state’s education secretary was angry. He replied in a letter to Education Next, noting that our analysis was full of “errors purposefully made”:

They write, Results in September 2008 showed a sharp drop in MCAS pass rates and flat or declining scores in the elementary and middle school grades.

This is simply wrong. Pass rates improved or stayed steady on 12 of the 16 tests administered. Math results reached an all-time high, including improvement in every grade.

The authors praise the work of Massachusetts students in citing the recent results on TIMSS, pointing to this exceptional performance as an illustration of the influence of status quo reforms while later falsely condemning students’ MCAS results to suggest a downward slide in performance.

Students have demonstrated consistent improvement on the MCAS over the years, improvement that has continued since Governor Patrick took office in 2006.

Sorry, Mr. Secretary, but the facts are otherwise as this set of new MCAS results only serves to reinforce.

The second point that is necessary to make in understanding this can be seen in the subtitle of Schworm’s piece: Only scattered gains for poorest, despite huge effort. The fact is that there has been a lot of talk and a lot of bureaucratic moves by the Patrick administration, but not much that creates a real sense of urgency:

  • We’ve created a fourth iteration of the in-district charter-lite reform—so-called Innovation schools. This new category of schools follows its elder cousins: the unionized pilot, Horace Mann charter, and co-pilot schools. Each of these new types of district reform vehicles was to keep pace with the challenge posed by high-performance (Commonwealth) charter schools. For nearly 15 years, none has been able to keep up on a consistent basis to date in terms of improved student performance.
  • We’ve changed (ahem, watered down) the state’s audit system to hold districts and district schools accountable.
  • We’ve packed the Board of Education to give the Governor a direct voice in education policy, while weakening the commissioner’s position.
  • We’ve adopted new education standards that independent research (1, 2, 3, 4) shows are much weaker because they shave literature requirements by half and weakened the progression toward college math (e.g., Algebra I gets pushed back from 8th to 9th or even 10th grade).
  • We’ve ditched the US history MCAS requirement, which was slated to go live in 2009.
  • We’re in the process of developing new tests, the efficacy of which we do not know because the national tests (which are forbidden under federal law) are in fact not yet developed and being developed outside of public view.
  • We’ve sweted the development and promulgation of new regulations to promote virtual/digital learning options, but which do the exact opposite.

That’s a lot of huge, sweat-inducing churning in the central offices of the state education bureaucracy. But, in reality, it has little or no impact on the schools and the classrooms, except to signal to them that the sense of urgency of 1993 MERA is over.

What’s clear to anybody who has watched the education space for the past two decades is that the 1993 reform saw the board set clear policy and clearly measurable goals, and put into place an accountability system to make sure the goals were met by local professionals. The rest was providing funding to local professionals to get the job done.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed the resurrection of the pre-1993 mindset: Reform is to be driven by the central office experts. Lots of hand-waving and big announcements from the center. No pressure on the locals to show progress.

It is huge effort signifying I can’t say nothing but certainly nothing urgent. The latest MCAS data, taken together with NAEP data I’ll share over the next few days just confirms that it’s for the most part just a big churn.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.