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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Learning in and from the Bay State

Sandra Stotsky was deeply involved in the transformation of public education in Massachusetts from 1999-2003. 

As senior associate commissioner of education, she oversaw the development and implementation of curriculum frameworks and testing of entry-level teachers. 

Massachusetts rose to the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As she explains here, the Bay State did not have annual testing.

She writes:

“K-12 schools have coped with an abundance of mandated testing since the early 1990s. Worse yet, under federal guidelines, the consequences of poor student performance have in the name of accountability come to fall more on teachers than students. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) expanded the educational-level testing mandated in the 1994 authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), mandating annual testing for reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, once in high school, and at several grade levels in science.

“The 2015 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), called ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), continued NCLB’s annual testing mandate. It did so in large part because of strong support from education researchers (e.g., Whitehurst, West, Chingos, Dynarski, among others, in Education Next). Yet, none provided evidence that annual testing via ESEA had significantly increased the achievement of low-income students in K-12 in both subjects. They couldn’t because there is none. Nevertheless, even though the national needle had not moved in reading at any National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)-tested grade in 50 years, ESSA punished the states with a continuation of annual testing and test-based accountability.

“A big question is why education researchers don’t look at what Massachusetts did and did not do to increase low-income student achievement. Remember, its average scores in both reading and mathematics, for grade 4 and grade 8, on NAEP tests in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 were the highest or among the highest of all 50 states. On the one international test of curriculum-based achievement (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—TIMSS), the state, entered as a separate country, tied with Singapore for first place in grade 8 science and was among the top six countries in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 in both 2007 and 2013. Surely, there should have been a long look at what the Bay State did, beyond its testing schedule.

“This is the testing that was done: From 1998 to 2000, testing took place in four major subjects (math, science, reading, and history) annually in grades 4, 8, and 10, or at one grade per educational level as mandated by the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act. After 2000, testing in math and reading took place annually but only at every other grade level (grade span testing) and at one grade per educational level annually in science and history until 2006, when NCLB’s annual requirements kicked in for math and reading because the tests were now ready for previously untested grades. The state’s high math and reading scores beginning in 2005 cannot be accounted for by annual testing. Nor can the state’s stunning performance in grade 8 science in 2007 or 2013.

“As the person in charge of the total revision or development of all the state’s K-12 standards, teacher and administrator licensing regulations, most teacher licensure tests, as well as criteria for professional development from 1999-2003, I have some basis for suggesting what I think likely contributed to students’ enduring academic gains in the past decade even if education researchers do not seem to want to learn what the Bay State did.

“Under my direction, the state department of education revised major documents to increase the content knowledge requirements in standards for all students, and to strengthen academically the licensure requirements for the state’s teacher and administrator corps. The results of high quality research were clear; teachers’ knowledge of the subject they teach is the only trait associated with enhanced gains in student achievement. The documents we developed during the years I was a public bureaucrat, including definitions of terms used, embedded policies approved by the field (via frequent public comment), the Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, and the Board of Education under James Peyser, chair.

“Annual testing at every grade level in math, reading, and science was not one of them. Nor was it apparently necessary for higher and enduring academic achievement in these subjects, even though ESSA froze it in for reading and math. Nor can the case be made today that annual testing improves low-income student achievement. It’s possible it may even retard achievement. We don’t know because the idea has not been explored by education researchers. Why civil rights organizations or the Gates Foundation support a policy that exists in no other country needs explanation.”