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Time for the Next Step in Measuring Education Reform

Posted on September 21, 2012

“MCAS scores for 10th-graders reach record high,” headlines the Boston Globe. What’s behind the headline?

EducationThe 10th-grade numbers are the best yet, surely good news. Some other results slipped. Year-to-year variations don’t necessarily mean much, but the fact that over a five-year period results have improved on 14 of the 17 MCAS tests certainly represents progress.

Let’s focus on the 10th-grade tests, the last in the series, which students must pass at the “needs improvement” level before graduating from high school. Among 10th graders, 88 percent scored proficient or better on the English test this year, compared to 71 percent in 2007. The percentage of 10th-graders scoring proficient or better on the math test reached 78, up from 68 percent five years ago. Since MCAS was initiated in 1998, these percentages have more than doubled. On the newer science, technology and engineering test, 69 percent of 10th-graders were at least proficient in 2012.

Beyond the overall gains, the 2012 results show noticeable progress towards narrowing the achievement gaps affecting African-American, Latino, special needs and low-income students, and English language learners.

On the downside ��_ we’re still a long way from 100 percent proficiency, and “proficient” is not the top of the scale.  The achievement gaps, though narrowing, remain serious concerns: while 92 percent of white 10th- graders passed all three tests, low-income students were at 75 percent, African Americans at 73 percent, Latinos at 67 percent, students with disabilities at 60 percent, and English language learners at 43 percent. Many individual schools are falling short of their targets for improvement.

And one of the scores stubbornly resisting uplift is third-grade English, especially important because research has established that third-grade reading proficiency is a key determinant of students’ future academic success. (The Legislature has just enacted and sent on to the Governor H.4243, An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency, introduced by Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) and Representative Marty Walz (D-Boston) to address this last issue.

So the standards-based reform program put in place under the Education Reform Act of 1993 has worked. Its impact is far from played out, but we have clearly reached a point of slower progress, of diminishing returns. There are inherent limits to the effectiveness of any testing regime, to be sure, but part of the problem lies in the particular limitations of a program that provides assessments only intermittently over the course of a student’s school years.

Without annual assessments (at least) we lack the ability to track students’ progress closely and to give them the individual support they require to move ahead ” the student-centered teaching that is one of the great promises of reform. Nor can we realistically expect to use the sporadic assessment system we have as a component of a fair and credible evaluation of educators. The current 10th-grade MCAS tests, moreover, are really at the 8th-grade level, which means there is effectively no statewide standards-based assessment of high-school-level achievement.

This flaw will be addressed through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a 23-state consortium bringing economies of scale to bear on the creation of assessments based on the widely-adopted Common Core State Standards. Massachusetts is an active member of PARCC, and our state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner, Dr. Mitchell Chester, chairs the consortium’s governing board.

New PARCC assessments in English language arts/literacy and mathematics are planned for administration beginning in 2014″2015; the revised curriculum frameworks behind them were put in place in Massachusetts last year.

What’s behind the headline? We have come a long way in Massachusetts schools. We have further to go ” in fact, the road ahead has no end. But we are pressing forward.