Year after year, Massachusetts schools are declared No. 1 in the country. How can that be, I ask myself. Are the schools that much better here than elsewhere?
Well Massachusetts schools are good, and there are reasons for that, but there are other factors that don’t involve classroom instruction.
Also there should be a big asterisk on the top-line statistic. The No. 1 ranking masks the fact that Massachusetts has one of the nation’s worst so-called achievement gaps between rich and poor communities.
More concerning is that the achievement gap hasn’t narrowed despite the considerable resources poured into public school systems over the last 25 years.
Attleboro is one of a small group of school districts delving into this issue by questioning whether the increased standardized testing that stemmed from the 1993 education reform act is in the best interest of students.
Others involved in this effort point to socio-economic factors to explain both the state’s high ranking and the achievement gap.
The overall high scores “are more a reflection that the state ranks at the top of parental income and level of education, the two indicators that are most closely correlated to scores on standardized tests,” said Dan French of the Center for Collaborative Education in a Sun Chronicle story by reporter Jim Hand last month.
In other words the high proportion of relatively well off and well-educated adults in the state obscures the fact that there are many struggling students in poorer districts who have weak skills and therefore worse prospects when they leave school.
Attleboro is part of a study group called the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. Other communities that are part of this are Boston, Lowell, Revere, Somerville and Winchester.
Representing Attleboro are school Superintendent David Sawyer and Adeline Bee, president of the Attleboro Education Association, the teachers’ union.
The group appears to be fighting an uphill battle to achieve their ultimate goal, which is to develop an alternative to MCAS testing.
The study group sought a modest $400,000 in this year’s state budget; then the Baker administration eliminated the funding; the Legislature restored it, and finally Gov. Charlie Baker cut it to $200,000 in his veto message. So the work will continue for now.
MCAS has more supporters than opponents, largely because it has brought accountability to public education and not insignificantly is the basis for the state’s top school ranking.
Massachusetts transformed public education with the 1993 education reform law which was intended to propel schools to keep getting better, as measured by MCAS. The law was backed up with a doubling of state funding by 2000. It also opened the door for charter schools.
The law had the backing of all parties at the outset, which is one reason why education reform succeeded in Massachusetts when it languished in places riven by partisanship.
However, MCAS has a downside, as explained by Attleboro’s state representative, Jim Hawkins, a former teacher. Teachers teach to the test and students get stressed by having to take up to 15 hours of high-stakes tests in a week, he told Hand.Meanwhile, it’s reassuring to read that Massachusetts’ good reputation is not wholly due to test scores.
A personal finance organization called Wallet Hub rated Massachusetts No. 1 across some 25 measures earlier this year. Test scores, including the pre-college SAT and ACT exams, were emphasized, but the measures also included such things as dropout statistics, per pupil spending, bullying rates and the number of school injuries. That should be inspiring as students return to school this week and next.