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Council in the News

Massachusetts education reform — some successes but lots more to do

Past chairs of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education weigh in on what the state needs to do to make good on its commitment to equity in education.

By Christopher R. Anderson, Maura Banta, James A. Peyser, Paul Reville, and Paul Sagan

Updated July 17, 2023, 2:08 p.m.


On the 30th anniversary of the historic Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, the state has much to celebrate in terms of educational progress from kindergarten through high school, while also much to lament in terms of goals not met.

The state has led the nation for decades in performance measured by the National Assessment of Education Performance, commonly known as the nation’s report card. But it has failed to substantially close all achievement gaps and adequately prepare tens of thousands of students for college and careers. We have come a good distance, but we have a long way to go. MERA’s strategies have been necessary but not sufficient to achieve the state’s equity goal of preparing all children to thrive regardless of their location, race, gender, disability, or family situation.

It is troubling that education reform is threatened from a couple of different directions. One threat is complacency, the belief that our top status in the nation’s report card means we should do nothing differently, rest on our laurels, and simply bear down harder with existing strategies and tools even though these have left so many children behind.

The other threat, more strident and visible, calls for eliminating high standards for all, stopping the measurement of progress, and eliminating any form of accountability. The campaign to abolish the MCAS graduation requirement is the tip of the iceberg in a movement to roll education back to the pre-MERA era when goals were unclear, measurement and accountability were nonexistent, and gross inequity was pervasive. MERA’s reforms were a remedy to these ills, and while imperfect, these changes catapulted Massachusetts from middling performance to the leading ranks of K-12 school performance nationally and internationally. They should not be abandoned.

At a time when equity has been twisted and coopted to further political agendas in a number of other states, Massachusetts should stand tall in its commitment, clearly expressed in MERA, to level the playing field and ensure that all students get the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a 21st-century economy and democracy.

In the words of the late Mitchell Chester, longtime commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the assessment aspects of MERA are fundamental to the achievement of equity: “The collection and reporting of aggregated student achievement data has fundamentally changed the focus of educational policy debates and practice in the Commonwealth and has allowed communities and district leaders to identify patterns of excellence and underperformance within their own districts. Without such assessments and reporting, state and local leaders would not have the ability to confidently, independently, and accurately identify schools and districts where students are and are not meeting the state standards.”

The basic principle of the 1993 reforms was that all students should be educated to high standards and that the progress of every school and student toward achieving that goal should be regularly measured for diagnostic purposes to guide adjustments in policy and practice. The graduation requirement of passing MCAS (with provisions for extra support, multiple attempts, and alternate pathways) was intended to give school systems a powerful incentive to provide students the content and instruction they needed to succeed on a 10th-grade competency test. So much for the claim that we have been asking too much of educators and students when 60 percent of community college students in Massachusetts, all of whom passed MCAS, need at least one remedial class before being ready to do college work.

The 10th-grade graduation standard is clearly not too high. And as to the claim that the MCAS requirement punishes students: Delaying graduation was never intended as a punishment but rather as an entitlement. If educators have not given students the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the four-year high school cycle, the state needs to guarantee that students will have access to whatever instruction they need to master the key subjects. Sending unprepared students forward to likely failure is the real punishment.

In 1993, Beacon Hill decided it was in the interest of the Commonwealth’s future and the quest for equity to have a high minimum standard for all. Now, the results are in: Some success but with lots more to do. Instead of going backward by retreating on standards and letting every community have its own standards — or even no standards — or failing to recognize the genuine shortcomings of our reform strategies, the state should be focused on the next chapter of improvement through further reform. It is imperative that we pivot, innovate, and try different approaches to achieve our equity goals.

Of course, MCAS can and has been improved as a measurement instrument, and the state has a long way to go toward providing high-quality curriculum and instruction to all. At the same time, and despite the amazing job educators did in coping with very challenging conditions, COVID-19 demonstrated how much factors like poverty, lack of adequate health care, nutrition, stable housing, after-school and summer enrichment, and even Internet access affect a student’s education.

Our call to action is for the creation of Ed Reform 2.0 that includes, among key attributes, quality, universal, early childhood education; after-school and summer enrichment opportunities guaranteed for all; personalized learning plans for every student; school to career pathways; early college; project-based, applied learning; and many more strategies that will enhance opportunity, learning, and children’s health and well-being, making good on our commitment to equity. We owe this to our students and their families, educators, and all members of our Commonwealth.

Christopher R. Anderson, Maura Banta, James A. Peyser, Paul Reville, and Paul Sagan are past chairs of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.