The Acid Test

At an event like the annual winter meeting of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, discussions of school safety or finance issues are as commonplace as the coffee-and-danish breakfast. But one mid-morning session carried a title more typical of gatherings at a hospital or community center. Echoing the same mix of anger, fear, resignation, and determination implicit in support-group seminars entitled “Living with Cancer” or “Living with Parkinson’s,” the 200-plus school-district leaders had their own coping hour. It was called “Living with MCAS.” And it was packed.

So it was, in a windowless hotel conference room in Marlborough last January, that four superintendents from around the state took turns venting to about 80 colleagues about Massachusetts’s new graduation test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Administrators who came to the event hoping for tips about how to get today’s ninth-graders–the first to face the graduation requirement–to pass the MCAS by the time they’re seniors may have been disappointed. No one had the magic bullet for that. But they craned their necks nonetheless, eager for some insight they might take back to communities churning with emotions over the test and the high stakes attached to it. Or maybe it was just that misery loves company.

Mae Gaskins, then superintendent in low-income Lawrence, told of struggling to get children to read by the third grade even though some start school not knowing their first names. Eugene Carlo, superintendent of the Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, whose students find traditional academic settings and tests punishing, began by calling the challenging MCAS “a four-letter word.” He concluded this way: “Living through MCAS is hell.” After the forum, panelist Harvey Horwitz, of the rural Central Berkshire district, remarked that living with MCAS is indeed like coping with a disease. “It’s like living with malaria. You get cured; you get it again.”

This kind of talk, though rarely heard in public from school administrators, will only get louder as the elaborate edifice of investment and accountability erected by the 1993 Education Reform Act nears completion in the coming year. The landmark commitment to school improvement promised an unprecedented infusion of state funding–about $5.6 billion in new money to date–to provide every student, regardless of where they live, an adequately funded education. Then, based on the state¹s first-ever curriculum guides and standards of performance, schools were expected to bring teaching and learning in Massachusetts to a world-class level.

MCAS, first given in 1998, was to be one measure of how well that mission was proceeding, testing students at grades four, eight, and 10 on core subject matter defined by the curriculum guides, or “frameworks.” While all of the tests track individual progress–or lack thereof–the 10th-grade test introduces a further level of accountability, known as “high stakes,” in the education vernacular: Students must pass it in order to graduate from high school.

Next year’s 10th-graders, members of the Class of 2003, will be the first to face the graduation requirement. And although they must pass muster only in English and math–the requirement to master social studies, science, and a foreign language has been put off for now–it will be an uphill battle for many. Statewide, 31 percent of last year’s 10th-graders failed the English language arts test; 50 percent failed math. Will those who fail buckle down so they can pass the re-test in triumph? Or will they give up and drop out?

The stakes are high not only for the students. Schools and school districts–and their staff–are all to be held accountable for what they do with the opportunities provided by the state’s financial largesse. Schools and districts found to be “chronically under-performing” on MCAS and other measures run the risk of having the state Board of Education or the Commissioner of Education intervene in their affairs; districts could end up in state receivership. For teachers and administrators, it is widely believed, nothing less than their jobs will be on the line.

“I don’t think anybody’s ready. But the question is, what is the right response?”

But the stakes could be highest for education reform itself. For the first time in seven years, the Legislature is debating funding for elementary and secondary education. The 1993 reform law is not expiring, but the seven-year schedule for phasing in full funding of the foundation budget–the baseline per-pupil spending goal in each district–concludes this summer. The debate will concern not only whether to maintain current levels of state aid, continuing the attempt to reduce financial disparities between schools in rich and poor communities, but how much more–if anything–the state should invest. Will the funding increases of the past seven years be seen as a down payment on an ongoing process of school reform that deserves further financial–and political–support? Or will the 1993 act be painted as a costly failure, with lawmakers declining to throw good money after bad?

So, with students, schools, and education reform itself on the line, the question must be asked: Are we ready psychologically, politically, and educationally to face the high-stakes music?

“It’s a train wreck that could be coming in 2003,” says Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who co-authored the reform law and remains its legislative champion.

“I don’t think anybody’s ready,” says the other co-author, former state representative Mark Roosevelt. “But the question is, what is the right response?”

What, indeed.

EDUCATION REFORM IN ACTION

As the high-stakes deadline looms, there are rumblings of revolt over MCAS. Groups of teachers and students, mostly in the affluent suburbs west of Boston and in pockets of progressivism like Cambridge, have protested or boycotted the test. A group originating in western Massachusetts, the Student Coalition for Alternatives to the MCAS, is organizing opposition statewide through the Internet (www.scam-mcas.org). Last fall, a group of parents, educators, and anti-testing activists known as the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education proposed a multi-pronged approach for assessing school and student performance, including local performance-based assessments and a school-quality review similar to an accreditation process. Early this year, the Massachusetts Teachers Association announced it would file legislation to kill MCAS as a graduation requirement.

Little of this grumbling, however, is coming from the urban districts and poor communities that are the true targets–and primary beneficiaries–of education reform. In places filled with the neediest, low-income, immigrant, and transient student populations, school leaders have, by and large, embraced the state’s regimen of standards and accountability. For districts that, prior to 1993, hadn’t been pushed to serve all students well or didn’t have the resources to do so, the $5.6 billion spent statewide has been a godsend. From Boston to Springfield, city school chiefs have latched on to standards-based reform not only as a quid-pro-quo for the new dough, but as their preferred vehicle for improving instruction.

Yet it will be in these urban areas that the MCAS boom will come down hardest. More than half of the 10th-graders in Brockton, Fitchburg, Springfield, and Worcester failed the math test last year. In Holyoke and Lawrence, not even three out of 10 students passed. Overall, half of Boston’s 10th graders failed the English test, and 63 percent failed math. But those numbers include students at the city’s three selective high schools, admission to which is based on an entrance exam. In the non-exam high schools, the math test failure rate ranges as high as 89 percent, or nearly nine out of 10 kids. All these school systems claim to be redoubling their efforts at raising student performance before the first student loses a diploma in 2003. But as the acid test approaches, the prospect of failure looms large.

Nowhere has the challenge of education reform been embraced more heartily than in Everett. The gritty, blue-collar-turning-working-poor city of 35,000 across the Mystic River from Boston may seem like an unlikely educational trail-blazer. More than 40 percent of Everett’s 5,600 public schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with one in four statewide. The district mirrors the state overall almost precisely in its racial and ethnic profile and its share of special needs and limited-English-proficiency students.

Yet Everett has become a kind of poster child for education reform–how it’s supposed to work, and how it is working. Everett students have performed better on MCAS than the district’s demographic characteristics would predict, says Robert Gaudet, a senior research analyst at the University of Massachusetts’s Donahue Institute. “If you can make it work in Everett,” says Gaudet, “you can make it work in any of the cities.”

Like communities across Massachusetts, Everett saw its school budget decimated in the wake of Proposition 2 1/2, the 1980 ballot measure that limited growth of the property taxes used to fund schools. The infusion of state education-reform funds brightened old facilities and breathed new life into a depleted, battle-worn staff. Now, the school district can afford computer teachers and computer labs, guidance counselors, and nine music teachers where before there was one. At Parlin Junior High School, every stick of furniture is less than four years old. Students had been using the very same desks Principal Thomas Stella had sat at as a student 35 years before.

Under Superintendent Fred Foresteire, Everett has bought in to the notion that it can do better by its kids if it just buckles down, works hard, and follows the reform act’s lead–including using tests to advance system-wide improvement. While the state was still developing MCAS, Foresteire and his people were using its predecessor, the Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program, to figure out where kids needed help, and to make sure teachers knew how to provide it. They also developed new ways to motivate students and recognize progress.

As the new state curriculum frameworks, standards, and tests have fallen into place, the Everett schools have geared their efforts to them. The district now requires staff to take professional development courses that are tied to the curriculum and the testing program, says Marie Lee, director of curriculum development. The district has also tried to get teachers and, in turn, students to focus not only on learning facts but on how to apply them. In addition, teachers and students in junior high and high school have become familiar with the rubrics, or grading guides, that are used to score the MCAS test’s extensive written answers.

One winter morning, in Karen Ficociello’s seventh-grade English class at Parlin Junior High, the rubrics are getting a workout. Ficociello has her students analyze the essays they’ve written–the subject is their hopes for the new year–against the state’s scoring scheme. The rubric sits in front of each of them, printed on the light blue folders in which they keep their work. Would their essays get top scores, she asks? Why or why not? The kids get into it, offering opinions about the quality of their writing and that of their classmates. Slowly walking up and down the rows of chairs, the wood floors squeaking beneath her feet, Ficociello has the kids’ full attention as she reads aloud from volunteers’ essays, interjecting just enough to point out a particularly strong passage. When she comes across a correct use of a semicolon, Ficociello beams.

If it can help to have students know how MCAS will grade their work, it can also help to have administrators know what their teachers are doing. At the start of last school year, Stella, Parlin’s principal, introduced a new system for planning lessons. Teachers used to record their plans in books resembling spiral-bound “month-at-a-glance” calendars, with a box for each school day and penciled notes reminding themselves to “Discuss Anne Frank” or “Review questions 1-20.” No more, not with a principal in graduate school learning all the new educational practices–and not with MCAS breathing down their necks. Now, each day’s lesson is typed up on a page that details the objective, the content, and the related learning standard from the curriculum frameworks. The accumulation of one teacher’s lesson plans from the first semester of this school year–each page in a protective plastic sleeve–fills a black binder the size of a New York City phone directory.

Not only does this process force teachers to think through their lessons ahead of time, it helps them to address problems identified by MCAS. Reviewing results from the 1998 eighth-grade math test, Stella and his staff discovered that students were earning only 15 to 20 percent of the possible points in such categories as geometry; ratio, proportion, and percent; and probability and statistics. When the Parlin faculty looked back at their lesson plans and curriculum maps, they could see why. “We were teaching some of that stuff in late May and June,” after the test had been administered, Stella says. He asked teachers to squeeze in more material before spring.

Stella admits the new planning process is a “phenomenal amount of work,” requiring 30 to 40 minutes per daily lesson rather than the five minutes a day needed before. More than one teacher filed a grievance with the union, calling the requirement a change in working conditions. Stella says all were resolved in his favor. Superintendent Foresteire liked the lesson-plan idea so much he imposed it on all teachers of grades six to 12.

Indeed, the whole system of standards-based education reform appeals to the work ethic of Foresteire and his team, most of whom are Everett born and bred. “People are working harder at their jobs today than they were 10 years ago,” says Thomas Gibson, principal of Everett High School. “It is good for education, positively,” he says. “There are more demands being made on teachers, more demands being made on students.”

Those demands are paying off. The average score for Everett High’s 10th-graders was eight points above the minimum passing mark of 220 on the English test last year. A higher percentage of Everett students–73 percent–passed than the statewide average of 69 percent. The percentage of 10th graders passing the math test jumped nine points from the year before.

OUT OF SUCCESS, FAILURE

But Everett’s silver lining has its own dark cloud. Even with the nine-point improvement, 54 percent of Everett’s 10th-graders failed the MCAS math test last year. And last year’s eighth graders–the Class of 2003, which will have to pass MCAS to graduate–did even worse. At Parlin, 59 percent of eighth-graders failed the math test, with an average score of 217, compared with a statewide failure rate of 39 percent and average score of 226.

How the Everett schools will get their students over this hurdle is far from clear. In contrast to the seventh-graders in Ficociello’s English class, kids in an eighth-grade math class on a winter afternoon are anything but engaged. Granted, it’s after lunch, last period, and the class is reviewing for a unit test the next day. But it is on those all-important ratios, proportions, and percents that hurt Everett’s MCAS scores before. The teacher stands at the front of the room, an overhead projector between her and the students, and seems exasperated at their indifference. She calls on each in turn to report their answers from the previous night’s homework, but not everyone has done the work or brought it to class. A couple of kids have their heads down on their desks. These are students who will have to pass MCAS in order to graduate from high school in 2004.

Across the street at Everett High, algebra teacher Debra Carson is the next stop for some of those math students. She says neglected homework is a familiar problem. But worse, some of her ninth-grade students can barely add and subtract. And many students may not even complete their algebra and geometry courses before facing MCAS tests on those subjects.

For all of their effort, Everett educators are still facing the prospect of widespread failure when MCAS turns high stakes. Much, they say, is beyond their control. Gibson notes that 48 percent of the 182 new enrollees at Everett High through February 1 were not native English speakers. In the first week of January alone, Parlin registered a half-dozen new Portuguese-speaking Brazilian students, a newly significant minority group in the district. Though some of these new students have strong academic backgrounds, many do not. Stella points out that 48 kids, or 13 percent of the Parlin eighth-graders who did so poorly on MCAS in 1999, had been in the Everett schools less than two years. But he’s also resolute: “We have no intention of sitting on our hands. There’s no way anyone can criticize us for lack of effort.”

That attitude comes from the top. Foresteire has no patience for any educator who blames failure to reach high standards on the students. “Those are cop-out statements by people in this business who aren’t sensitive and don’t want to work at it,” he says. “If you’re a teacher, you reach down and grab the guys and gals that need to be pulled up.”

Foresteire says his plan for pulling kids up involves intensive emphasis on the basics. Entering ninth-graders who look like they’re headed for MCAS failure will find themselves scheduled for MCAS prep instead of study hall; for those students, electives will be a thing of the past. And if you fail MCAS in 10th grade, Foresteire warns, “We’ve got you by the scruff of the neck for your junior year and your senior year.”

But for all his can-do bluster, Foresteire also expects that, in time, the test will be made easier and failure rates will come down. “Time will work it out, [showing that] this does work, that doesn’t work.” Eventually, he says, “You’ll get an MCAS testing program that I think will be more realistic and it will give you a better picture of what’s going on. They tried to shock everybody [at first]…They’ll tone that down.”

Gibson used to think the same thing. Now he’s not so sure. He had expected some sort of legal challenge would sink plans to deny diplomas to kids who fail. But when a federal judge in Texas upheld that state’s graduation test in January, despite a claim of discriminatory impact on minorities, he says: “It woke me up a little bit to realize this may really go off, this may really happen.” At Everett High, that means “30 to 40 percent [of students] are going to fail,” he says. Gibson puts no stock in the popular theory that once the Class of 2003 realizes the tests “count” for graduation, they’ll buckle down and scores will rise. He knows his students’ work on the MCAS, and he says they are already taking it seriously.

“We’ve done everything possible, yet our test scores still show an unacceptable failure rate,” he notes resignedly. “There will be some kids who will never pass the MCAS.”

DOING THE NUMBERS

Everett’s not the only district making a good-faith effort to raise scores only to face the dismal prospect of hefty failure rates. Other districts, too, are making changes and, they say, seeing their students do better. But not on MCAS.

At the 800-student Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School, what eats at Superintendent Gene Carlo is that “the heart and soul of my kids that are here will not pass the test.” The numbers speak for themselves: On the 1999 MCAS, 51 percent of 10th-graders failed the English test, compared with 31 percent statewide. In math, the news was worse: While half of sophomores statewide could not pass, 78 percent failed in Carlo’s high school.

What disturbs him, he says, is that he knows those kids are not failures. The students who enroll in ninth grade to study auto mechanics or computer-aided design may not have thrived in a traditional academic high school–about 25 percent are in special education, compared with 16 percent statewide–but after mastering a trade, they often go on to successful careers. As plumbers and electricians, some will earn paychecks bigger than his. Voc-tech districts track down their alumni at two- and five-year intervals to see how they fared after graduation. The data show, “We deliver,” Carlo says.

Despite the discouraging situation–his teachers looked like “their very best friend had died” the first time they saw the MCAS scores, he says–Carlo continues to do the best he can. In the 17 school months he has students before the 10th-grade MCAS, he is beefing up their academic experience. He’s devoting more time to core subjects, eliminating electives for ninth- and 10th graders, arranging for homework coaches to help students, and freeing up time for academic-subject teachers to float into vocational classes. He’s even offered a $100 stipend to teachers for each especially needy student they mentor and tutor. “I just take the child that arrives with the shortfalls [he has],” Carlo says, “and we move them as far as we can move them.”

Carlo is one of many school administrators eager to see the state develop an alternative diploma to attest to the skills students do have, even if they fail the MCAS. He says state politicians and policymakers will eventually see the light: “There’s no way they can defy logic on what is happening to these vocational kids.”

Education Commissioner David Driscoll, who is adamant about the need for all students to pass MCAS, seems open to some variation on this idea. Perhaps vocational-technical students who can¹t pass MCAS could leave high school with something that shows their proficiency in, say, the culinary arts. “But,” an unwavering Driscoll warns, “they can’t be a high school graduate.”

Districts are making changes and say students are doing better. Not on MCAS.

Compared with the Foresteires and Carlos of the state, Paul S. Hays should have it easy, some would say. Hays is the new principal of City on a Hill School, a charter high school housed at the YMCA in Boston’s Back Bay. He runs a school, founded in 1995, that has no union contract and no ossified school-district bureaucracy telling him what he can’t do. With 200 students in grades nine through 12, City on a Hill is much smaller than the typical Boston high school, a feature that has been linked by researchers to higher student achievement. Last June, the first graduating class left City on a Hill. All 22 graduates earned acceptance at two- and four-year colleges, including Amherst, Northeastern, UMass-Dartmouth, Clark, and Penn State. By some standards, Hays’s students are success stories.

But not on MCAS. On last year’s 10th-grade English test, 56 percent of City on a Hill’s students passed, faring only slightly better than the Boston public schools’ average of 50 percent. City on a Hill did outperform all but one of Boston’s non-exam schools on the English tests. But math was a different story, with City on a Hill sophomores doing the same or worse than all but one non-exam school. Only 14 percent of his 10th graders passed the test last year, a rate even Hays calls “abysmal.”

“The majority of students we get at the ninth grade are below ninth-grade level in English and math,” Hays notes. The school will decide by this summer, Hays says, whether to try to head off that problem by enrolling students in the seventh and eighth grades as well. In the meantime, City on a Hill is trying to emphasize basic skills and meet the pressures of MCAS. For the first time this year, the school has programmed double periods of English and math for ninth graders. Students diagnosed as below-grade-level take only those subjects, plus Spanish and a dose of study skills. Students performing at grade level or higher take science and history as well.

“Look at our scores in two years,” Hays says bravely. Unlikely as it may seem, the goal for next year, he says, is for all City on a Hill students to pass the English and math tests the first time they take them. “The first MCAS scores I’m going to fuss about,” Hays says, “are next year’s MCAS scores.”

But at a certain point, says Hays, there will be a decision to be made about how much of school life is going to be ruled by MCAS. “If one-third [of students] don’t pass,” he says, “how well do we cater to that?” Should his school invest in running after-school and summer-school programs designed simply to get kids to pass MCAS? “Schools will then have to move resources to meet it directly. How much is our curriculum affected?” Hays asks. “How much of that really compromises education, compromises teachers?”

PLAYING CATCH UP

Helping students play catch-up to get them over the MCAS bar is a theme emerging in many districts. The issue of remediation–or, as some call it, intensification–is a big one for which there is not yet a comprehensive state plan, some grumble. What there is, though, is an annual $18 million Department of Education grant program for “academic support services.” Now in its second year, the program takes applications from districts and charter schools in which more than 20 percent of the students taking MCAS received a failing score. The idea is to provide individual or small-group instruction during extended days, Saturdays, school vacations, or summertime for students in grades three to 10. Senate President Birmingham, for his part, has proposed doubling the funding for the program next year.

If that’s the carrot from the state, the stick isn’t far behind. Getting a jump on the school and district accountability system scheduled to kick in after the 2000 MCAS results are known, the education department announced in March that it would soon send out teams of agency staff, educators, and others to examine eight struggling middle and junior high schools. The schools are those in which more than 60 percent of the students scored in the failing category on the 1998 eighth-grade MCAS and for whom the 1999 tests brought worse results. By June, the schools could find themselves on a “watch list” or declared “under-performing,” in which case a “fact-finding team” would evaluate the school and tell it how to shape up.

Students in the Boston public schools are clearly going to need lots of extra help to get over the MCAS bar. More than 70 percent of Boston’s 64,000 students qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches and more than 20 percent have limited proficiency in English. The district is currently giving its poorest-performing students at grades three, six, and nine extra doses of literacy and math after school and in the summer. Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant, who says he is “increasingly worried” about the city’s MCAS math scores, announced this winter that he would send intervention teams into three struggling city high schools–Boston High, Dorchester High, and South Boston High–to help them raise their scores.

“With Support and focus… there is hope that the gap can be closed.”

“The good news,” Payzant says, “is that with support and focus, schools can accelerate the rate of improvement, so that there is hope that the gap can be closed.”

But he warns that this will only work if there’s a concerted effort by the state to pump extra money into urban districts, home to larger proportions of the state’s lowest-performing students. Pulling students over the MCAS hurdle cannot be done within the confines of the traditional six-hour school day, Payzant says. The state, he says, must “maintain the commitment to fund the reforms that have been begun by school districts and provide additional resources that are targeted to support the lowest-performing students in the state.”

Payzant says the sweeping changes that are a prerequisite to holding kids and schools to high standards are just beginning to take place. The superintendent, a former US assistant secretary of education, defines such reform as having four parts: a clear sense of what you want students to learn, a curriculum that will give them access to that learning, instructional practice that will do the same, and an assessment that will give them an opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned and how they can apply it.

“All four of those elements have to be in tight alignment for us to meet the high-stakes goal of having students meet a rigorous standard for graduation,” Payzant says. Has Massachusetts done that yet? His answer is unequivocal: “No.”

DEPARTMENT OF AMBIVALENCE

Some of the reasons Massachusetts may not be ready for high-stakes testing are well known. The curriculum frameworks that are supposed to guide instruction and serve as the basis for MCAS testing have been slow in coming and even slower in reaching stability. During the four-year tenure of chairman John Silber, the state Board of Education cast aside the work done by hundreds of Massachusetts teachers on the frameworks, and instead debated and altered them endlessly. Derogatory remarks made by the caustic Silber left educators around the state defensive and demoralized.

Turmoil begot turmoil: Robert Antonucci, then the commissioner of education, headed for the exit in 1998. With Silber’s own departure last year, James Peyser, who had been Silber’s pick for commissioner, became the third board chairman since the education reform law was passed in 1993. And Driscoll, a former deputy commissioner who was then serving as an interim commissioner, became the third head of the department since 1993, following the brief interim tenure of businessman Frank W. Haydu III.

The comings and goings–not to mention the rantings and ravings–that have characterized state education leadership serve to obscure a more fundamental reason that critics say the state has been unable to lead the education-reform process effectively–namely, that the state Department of Education lacks the capacity and the will to lead a process of statewide reform.

The state’s recession-era budget meltdown just about halved the department’s staff between 1988 and 1992–from 735 employees to 447. But rather than staffing up for the unprecedented statewide effort at educational renewal conceived in the 1993 education-reform act, the department’s numbers have stayed flat, dipping to 435 last year.

The Legislature has shown “a definite pattern of avoidance” when it comes to funding the agency, says S. Paul Reville, a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and chairman of the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission. Between 1993 and 1998, the key first years of education reform, the administrative budget of the department went up just $900,000, from $8 million to $8.9 million, according to the DOE.

“The Legislature has been generous with local aid to schools,” Reville points out. But, he says, “They have been very parsimonious when it comes to the role of the Department of Education and strengthening that role.”

But it has never been clear that Department of Education officials ever wanted to have their role strengthened. An essential contradiction in doing statewide education reform in Massachusetts is the prevailing idea that control of schools still belongs primarily to the more than 300 local districts. Other states that have made big strides on education reform–say, Kentucky or North Carolina–concentrate the decision-making in the state’s hands, leaving it to them to prescribe the course of study and adopt textbooks. But a tradition of local control doesn’t mean it can’t be done here. States with decentralized decision making, such as Connecticut and Maryland (see “Taking notes from Maryland,” sidebar), have also made significant progress toward improving schools in recent years. But, experts say, the state does need to find a way to step up to the leadership plate.

Robert Schwartz, president of Cambridge-based Achieve, Inc., a private, nonprofit group that assists states and school districts with standards, assessments, and accountability systems, says that “a strong, well-funded, well-staffed state agency” can help districts expand their own capacity to improve schools. It can “help in the support of networks of teachers and principals to share in effective practice, support the development of model curriculum units, [and] figure out a way to get teacher-generated lesson plans” shared statewide.

But that has not happened in Massachusetts. In 1997, a study done at the Harvard education school for Reville’s reform review commission revealed deep dissatisfaction with the education department in local school districts. They bemoaned inconsistent information and said they rarely contacted the department about professional development, for instance, finding the agency helpful only on legal and regulatory matters. Districts in western Massachusetts felt isolated due to the loss of regional offices–victims of budget cuts–that had given the department a “human face.” Smaller districts, which have fewer internal resources, longed for more technical assistance from the DOE. Based on its findings, the authors of the report recommended, “If the DOE wishes to help all districts improve. . .it needs to be more proactive in strengthening its support role for those districts that need it most.”

Not much has changed since that report. Today it is not the state education department but Mass Insight Education, a private nonprofit group in Boston, that is producing and distributing materials to help school districts translate state academic standards into grade-by-grade expectations.

Those involved in drafting the 1993 reform law do little to mask their disappointment in the department. Roosevelt, for one, says DOE staff should be out visiting districts that show good results and sharing those techniques with districts that need help. “I don’t think it is reasonable,” he says, “that the state just sits back and says, ‘Well, the locals haven’t demanded X of us.’ The state should’ve thought through what needed to be delivered.”

John Rennie, chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a group that pushed hard to make the reform law happen, echoed that feeling in a speech at the January superintendents’ meeting. The education department has not offered the kind of help districts need on things like curriculum development, he said. For each district to invent math curriculum, Rennie said, is “ludicrous.”

Driscoll acknowledges the department’s shortcomings and seems willing to entertain the need to serve districts better–up to a point. “We can provide some very valuable leadership in broadcasting best practices,” Driscoll says. But, he adds that in a local control state, “The Department of Education is primarily for setting standards. We provide technical Assistance. . .and we leave it to locals.” He continues: “It seems to me we have a proper balance.’

The ambiguous, if not ambivalent, role of state leadership was in part built into the 1993 education law. The idea was to be explicit about the goals districts and schools were to reach but to leave it up to them to get there. In hindsight, Roosevelt wonders whether that was the right approach. “That clearly is problematic,” he says now, “and clearly one would wonder, therefore, whether the state’s role needs to be expanded.”

POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE

Right now, the state is engaged in a high-pressure game of educational brinksmanship. Undoubtedly, it is the specter of kids losing diplomas–and schools being held responsible for that loss–that is driving a lot of the change in schools. “Take the stakes away, everybody goes back to sleep,” asserts William Guenther, president of Mass Insight Education.

But it is not clear that people understand what it means to play that game to the end. At this point, the state has not yet even decided how many chances each student will get to take MCAS before his graduation day. But the day of reckoning is fast approaching. Will that mean the state’s high standards finally have teeth? Or will it mean the end of high standards, as the public–and the politicians–recoil from the consequences?

“This will be the ultimate test of standards-based reform to date.”

“This will be the ultimate test of standards-based reform to date,” says Paul Reville. “Obviously, the denial of graduation to students on the basis of the MCAS tests will be a very volatile issue, and my guess is the [public’s] tolerance for high failure rates is going to be very limited.”

Meet the Author
At the superintendents’ meeting in January, Central Berkshire superintendent Horwitz posed a practical, if provocative, question to Commissioner Driscoll about Graduation Day 2003 and students who have failed the test. In a let’s-cut-to-the-chase tone, Horwitz bellowed from the back of the room, “Can we march them down the aisle in cap and gown? [Or] are the MCAS police coming?”

Driscoll seemed unfazed, and answered, “No.” There would be no MCAS-enforcers lurking in the wings to disrupt the procession. It was all rather matter-of-fact. What wasn’t addressed was the dismal reality that for perhaps half of the students in our urban schools, the mortarboard might fit and the flash bulbs might pop, but the pomp and circumstance might signify nothing at all.