Student achievement in Massachusetts handily demonstrates why treating the US as one undifferentiated mass when it comes to education policy may be wrong-headed. According to the latest data, if MA were treated as a separate country, it would have the second-highest levels of academic attainment in the world.
The state defies trends when it comes to science and mathematics. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, it ranked behind only Singapore in 4th-grade science and lagging only Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan in the same subject at the 8th grade level.
This puts the state a full 4 places ahead of United States as a whole, according to Kenneth Chang of The New York Times.
TIMMS might not provide a complete picture of student achievement, but the test offers an interesting insight into what happens when a state gets serious about improving its science and math education. Nearly 20 years ago, lawmakers, along with education advocates and experts, set this as a goal, developed a plan and – most importantly – believed in it enough to stick with it through early years of disappointment.
While Massachusetts has a richer and better-educated population than most states, it is not uniformly wealthy. The gains reflected improvement across the state, including poorer districts.
"I think we are a proof point of what's possible," said Mitchell D. Chester, the state education commissioner.
The goal was encapsulated in the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, a joint effort between the Democratic state legislature and Republican governor William F. Weld. The law attacked the problem of education on three fronts: allocating funding, adopting objective academic benchmarks and – a full decade before it become popular – rolling out a set of standardized exams all students had to pass before they could graduate high school. In this regard, the state seemed foretell the education reform movement that was to upend American education only a few years later. However, there were some parts of the movement that MA rejected outright – specifically, school choice.
Also noteworthy was what the reforms did not include. Parents were not offered vouchers for private schools. The state did not close poorly performing schools, eliminate tenure for teachers or add merit pay. The reforms did allow for some charter schools, but not many.
Then the state, by and large, stayed the course.
The new achievement test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS for short), was given to 10th graders for the first time in 1998. (The graduation requirement of obtaining an acceptable score on the 10th-grade MCAS did not take effect until 2003.)