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Is top-ranked Massachusetts messing with education success?

Massachusetts public schools produce students who are top in the nation in reading and math. Here's what the state did to get there, and here's why its shift to the new Common Core standards worries some experts.

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"One of the provisions ... was that no state would have to lower its standards in order to adopt the Common Core.... So the Massachusetts standards became a benchmark [in] developing the [new standards]," says Mr. Wilhoit, whose organization is coordinating the Common Core initiative.

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Despite the state's attainments, there are always areas to improve, education leaders here say – particularly when it comes to achievement gaps for minority and low-income students

"One of our greatest potential hurdles will be complacency," says Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education. "Once we are satisfied that we're doing it better than anyone else and that's good enough ... others will pass us by."

A key spark for education reform came in 1983 with "A Nation at Risk," a report warning that student achievement wasn't keeping pace – at home or abroad.

"In Massachusetts, people really took the report seriously," says David Driscoll, who became the state's deputy commissioner of education in 1993 and served as commissioner from 1999 to 2007.

Leaders from state government, education, and business came together to form the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, creating high standards and curriculum frameworks in math, reading, social studies, and science, as well as related tests for fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders – the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

To give those standards teeth, certain scores on 10th-grade tests became a requirement for high school graduation. Students scoring too low receive extra help and can retake the tests.

The emphasis on high-stakes testing led some teachers and parents to protest, worried that it would nudge borderline students into dropping out – a debate that later resonated nationally because of the testing regimen established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

"There was tremendous pushback, bills filed every year to do away with it, but we stuck with it," Mr. Driscoll says.

After the new system took hold, significant learning gains among Massachusetts students were reflected in both state and national tests.

The MCAS "made us feel as if Massachusetts had higher standards of learning than other states because that test is harder than other, average tests," Stevens says.

One big reason people came to accept the reforms: The state boosted education funding by more than 10 percent for each of the first six years – targeting the money largely to schools and districts with the highest needs. To date, the 1993 law has channeled $34.5 billion in extra state funding to school districts.

Strategies to boost achievement in Boston – the state's largest district – have included double blocks of time for reading and math instruction, as well as efforts "to get the best teachers teaching the kids that needed the most support," says Thomas Payzant, Boston's superintendent from 1995 to 2006.

In the 2010-11 school year, 97 percent of Massachusetts teachers were licensed specifically in the area they taught, and all teachers are required to earn a master's degree during their career, says Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Moreover, a statewide testing system for teacher applicants has helped bring up the quality of education.

Another factor: The state reform law set up a rigorous approval process for charter schools, many of which boast strong academic achievement.

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