By Emily Seymour, Investigative Reporting Workshop
Massachusetts is often touted as the best state for education in the country — and it has the test scores to back it up. But a closer look at the state’s test scores following the COVID-19 pandemic reveal that Massachusetts is no different from most states: They’re all still grappling with how to bring about more equitable progress.
Massachusetts students again tested at the top end of both reading and math in a national exam administered last year, but the gap between high-achieving students and the others continues to grow.
“When you looked at the distributions, our distributions were not good,” said Paul Reville, a former secretary of education in Massachusetts. “The gaps in performance between our highest-achieving and lowest-achieving groups were larger than in most other states. So if we were ranked on that basis, we would have been low,” he said.
Exams such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress give each state a numerical score based on the average test scores of each state, per age group, and for each subject area. The assessment is useful but does not provide a full picture.
If these exams gave states rankings based on distributions, rather than averages, Reville said, Massachusetts might look less positive.
Reville, now a professor of practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, pointed out that the original goal in education reform in the state was “every child a winner,” the title of a 1993 report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which Reville helped develop.
And against that standard, he said, Massachusetts has fallen short of its goal.
The reform act primarily created a new school finance system that doubled the state’s investment in public education over about seven years, with a majority of that new money given to the poorest districts in the state.
The assessment — administered last year for the first time since the pandemic — showed students of nearly all ages and in nearly every state dropped in reading and math scores.
How has Massachusetts fared?
Massachusetts isn’t the only high-performing state. In 2022, fourth-grade students in Massachusetts were joined by those in Wyoming and Florida with the highest reading scores, ranking 11, 9 and 9 points above the national average respectively.
And Nebraska students were among the top three, which also included Wyoming and Massachusetts again, when that state’s fourth-graders scored the highest in mathematics, ranking 7, 8, and 7 points above the national average respectively.
But even in these states with high scores, the education structure works against disadvantaged young students, said Reville.
“If we really want education to be the great equalizer, our concept of education has got to be much broader,” he said, “and it’s got to take into account the ecosystem from which the students come to school, the ecosystem in which they spend 80% of their waking hours between kindergarten and grade 12.”
The pandemic demonstrated his point.
Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, agreed. She said schools cannot focus only on education “because that’s just not realistic.” She compared education to where you live, which is not only about the house you live in, but about your community, transportation and health care.
“I think the schools that are able to provide and partner and be able to really have these systems in place that make it easy for families are the ones that do significantly better all around,” Reyes said.
The disproportionate drop in scores for disadvantaged students made sense, Reville said, as all the social determinants that affected students before the pandemic became increasingly important during the pandemic.
In Reville’s mind, now is the time for transformative change.
One way, he said, would be to instill in educators the need to better differentiate between children and their experiences and be willing to act on those differences.
“If some kids lost more ground during the pandemic than others, we’re going to have to disproportionately invest in helping them come back from that,” Reville said.
This would require a shift in the paradigm of how you support students, he said. For example, students with greater needs should be given greater amounts of time and attention.
Ultimately, this paradigm shift ties into what he believes is the way to welcome people back to school and get students re-engaged, which is to personalize education in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Reville proposed a program called success planning, which would require every student to have a plan that they follow from early childhood through high school. Such plans would take into account the student’s needs both inside and outside of the classroom and provide a navigator — an adult outside of the family — to help that child and family fulfill their plans as much as possible.
Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, which Reville founded, launched the Institute for Success Planning, which currently supports 12 communities across the country in implementing such a system.
The road forward
While all race and ethnicity groups saw declines in reading and math scores for 9-year-old students on average in 2022, Black students in that age group experienced the biggest drop in mathematics, dropping 13 points from 225 to 212.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education developed what it called an Acceleration Roadmap in 2021, laying out “a pathway” to an equitable recovery from the pandemic.
The roadmap aims to create a stronger partnership among all those in the community, identify what unfinished learning needs to be addressed and provide grade-appropriate instruction with modifications for students exceeding or falling short of their level.
In some ways, Massachusetts is no different from other states in its recovery from the pandemic, said Martin West, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and of the National Assessment Governing Board. But the Harvard professor added that in Massachusetts, some of the declines began before the pandemic began.
“When you take a broader perspective, it’s not clear that Massachusetts has the best results in the nation,” he said.
There’s no clear understanding or indicator as to why those declines pre-pandemic began taking place, but West suggested it’s possible that the state may have maxed out the gains from its Education Reform Act 30 years ago.
That’s why Massachusetts passed the Student Opportunity Act in 2019, which increased school spending and aimed to ensure success for all students, before the pandemic.
This act was more limited in scope than the reform act and instead focused almost exclusively on the school finance system, increasing state spending on education primarily in school districts serving large numbers of historically marginalized students.
The pandemic, however, may have stymied its implementation, West said.
He said money was there, but “school districts’ abilities to use that money as they might have to support student progress was limited.”
As schools continue to assess and help students hurt by the pandemic, West suggested that there needs to be a renewed focus on implementing the act as intended, to support student progress.
Reyes, however, said the pandemic was used to delay funding under former governor, Charlie Baker.
Reyes added that this delay stretched into a full year, when pandemic health concerns closed schools in 2020, before Baker’s administration began incrementally funding parts of the act.
The per-pupil funding formula is key, she said. The process calculates a base dollar amount each student receives, with additional add-ons if a student has a disability or is an English learner, for example. The old formula, however, didn’t account for whether a student was both an English learner and had a disability; this has since been rectified.
Massachusetts is one of the highest spending states per individual. In fiscal year 2020 this was $18,733, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The national average in that same year was $13,494 per student.
Preliminary Census Bureau data for fiscal year 2021 shows Massachusetts spending has declined to about $15,092 per individual, and the average nationwide slightly increased, to $14,330, although neither number is final.
“More money doesn’t necessarily equal improved performance, just as more time doesn’t necessarily equal improved performance or more autonomy,” Reville said. “It’s how you spend it.”