One cautionary tale about school reform

Massachusetts, singled out by Bush as a national leader, shows the ups and downs of an accountability plan.

It's been one year since the genesis of the most-sweeping education reforms in a generation - the "No Child Left Behind" law. Now, Massachusetts and a handful of other states are emerging as national leaders in implementing this accountability-based plan.

Indeed, President Bush singled out five states last week for being "on the leading edge" of reform. Massachusetts has received particular attention for its rigorous statewide student testing - part of a decade-long push to boost achievement by students and schools.

So now the Bay State, home of Harvard University and Horace Mann, may again represent the future of American education. But if so, it also presents a cautionary tale of the struggles that can be involved in implementing the new law. So far, the state's experience might be summed up as simply: short-term pain - with possibilities for long-term gain.

"Introducing significant accountability measures in a sector where there hasn't been much accountability is going to be difficult," says Paul Reville, an education analyst at MassINC, a nonpartisan Boston think tank. "Is that short-term dislocation a worthwhile price for creating long-term gain?"

Like moldy vegetables

To illustrate this, take one of the basic tenets of the new law: Test every child, and publish the schoolwide and districtwide results. In theory, this empowers parents, who are seen as educational consumers, to make logical decisions about whether to transfer their child out of a school. This could be likened to shoppers not returning to a grocery store that sells moldy vegetables.

Under this theory, an exodus of students ignites competitive instincts at the school, which either improves or is further penalized.

Yet in Massachusetts, school-quality ratings under the new federal law have created more confusion than clarity, in part because there are two measurement systems with very different rating criteria. Last month, for instance, the state identified 15 schools as suspect. But three of those weren't on the most recent federal list of schools "needing improvement."

In this case, the Massachusetts experience highlights two things, observers say: Rating schools is far more complicated than spotting moldy vegetables. And meshing state and federal accountability measures will take time and energy.

Another issue is the high price that students may pay for accountability efforts. This year, for example, the state began requiring 12th-graders to pass a test - the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS - to receive their high school diplomas. Although this isn't a federal requirement, it's how Massachusetts has chosen to get tough on testing.

Of the 57,000 seniors who planned to graduate this year, about 12,000 still haven't passed the MCAS, despite several retakes. This includes 44 percent of the state's black seniors and half its Hispanic seniors.

When all the retakes are completed, state officials expect 5 to 10 percent of seniors not to pass. There are also signs that dropout rates may be increasing as fewer kids feel they can survive the MCAS gantlet. So, ironically, the system appears to be leaving some kids - especially minorities - behind.

Indeed, critics say Massachusetts punishes kids - not schools - for the system's failings, while other states do put more emphasis on meting out consequences to schools.

Yet defenders say Massachusetts' tough measurements are a first step - albeit a messy one - toward meaningful reform. As Mr. Bush said last week, "You don't cause a problem by revealing the problem." He and others argue that if kids have to stay in school an extra year to pass the test - as a growing number are doing - so be it. They'll be better prepared for the world, they say.

One positive outcome of the tough test: Community leaders - from Boston's mayor to clergy members - have rallied to try to help kids pass the MCAS. But this may not be enough.

The money question

Whether states need more money to implement the No Child Left Behind law is a major debate - one that hasn't been settled by Massachusetts' experience.

Bush and his supporters argue that trillions of dollars have already been spent on education - and that the public is now demanding better results from its investment. Critics counter that Bush's plan fundamentally alters the American approach to education by requiring that by 2014, every student be proficient at math and reading. Previously, schools had in effect required that most - but not all - kids achieve proficiency.

Also, given states' increasingly strapped budgets, critics say, testing is an expensive distraction from the real work of education reform. "You don't need tests to know that schools in Roxbury are doing worse than those in Lexington," says Bob Schaeffer with FairTest, an anti-MCAS group in Cambridge. Roxbury is one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods, while Lexington is a wealthy suburb.

Indeed, if the Massachusetts experiment shows anything, says Dr. Reville, it's that "we're strong on diagnosis, but lacking in the capacity to do anything in the way of intervention." In other words, the hard part is just beginning.

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