Sweeping in scope and its ambition, the Education Reform Act of 1993 charted a revolutionary new course for Massachusetts public schools. The Massachusetts Legislature created the Act on the heels of the Supreme Judicial Court's (SJC) 1993 ruling in McDuffy v. Robertson. In that decision, the SJC ordered the Commonwealth to provide equal educational opportunity for all students in Massachusetts.
The Education Reform Act of 1993 affects virtually every aspect of primary and secondary education, from the number of hours students spend in the classroom to the criteria required for high school graduation.
One of the most prominent and costly features of the Act was increased state funding for education. To remedy inequities in funding across schools and districts, the Act established a "foundation budget" designed to bring all schools to an adequate level of per-pupil spending. In 1993, that foundation average was $5500 per student. By the year 2000, average per-pupil spending would be increased to the foundation level statewide, and the state contribution to education funding would increase from 30% to 50%. School districts could raise additional taxes to contribute beyond the basic level.
The Education Reform Act of 1993 did far more than boost education funding. Under the Act, student learning time for core academic subjects increased. Charter schoolsschools funded by public monies yet free from many district and state constraintswere given permission to enter the educational marketplace. Certification requirements for teachers were strengthened. And schools and districts that failed to perform adequately became subject to state receivership.
Perhaps the most controversial elements of the Act were those that mandated curriculum frameworks, student assessment, and graduation standards. The Act ordered the development of statewide curriculum frameworks in all core academic subjects. It mandated assessment at grades four, eight, and ten of student progress toward learning goals outlined in the frameworks. And it required tenth graders to show competency in the frameworks in order to receive a high school diploma.
Establishment of the curriculum frameworks proved difficult, as advocates for opposing teaching styles fought for guidelines that met their ideals. Frameworks documents underwent a number of revisions, and by summer of 2000, only those frameworks for mathematics, foreign language, health, and arts had received final approval from the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE). Science/technology, history/social science, and English/language arts frameworks were being revised or were scheduled for revision.
The means of assessing student progressand of determining students' eligibility for graduationproved even more contentious. The Education Reform Act called for "multiple methods" of assessing student proficiency. But so far, the DOE has relied on just one methoda series of high-stakes tests called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.
Advocates of MCAS insist that policies such as social promotion and portfolio-based assessment have long victimized students. Without a rigorous graduation standard like MCAS, say these advocates, young people will continue to graduate from high school without the skills they need to succeed in the world beyond school. Further, MCAS supporters say, the test helps districts, schools, teachers, and parents to diagnose individual and systemic weaknesses and provide all students with a better education.
First administered to students statewide in May, 1998, MCAS has drawn public criticism for its length, its level of difficulty, its alleged superficiality, its failure to allow for the needs of disabled students and students with limited English proficiency, and its alleged inability to provide a complete picture of a student's academic capabilities. Test results from 1998 and 1999 showed a high failure rate, particularly among minority students.
Since the first round of MCAS testing, the DOE has revised curriculum frameworks, reduced the length of the fourth grade tests, and added provisions to help students with disabilities or limited English proficiency improve their performance on MCAS. DOE also provides a variety of MCAS resources, including guides to each subject area test, complete curriculum frameworks, and sample test questions.
In July of 2001, the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission (MERRC) released a report on the DOE's capacity to implement the far-reaching demands of the Education Reform Act. Among other conclusions, the report stated that the DOE does not have adequate staff, resources, or systems to provide educators the support necessary to meet the goals of the Education Reform Act.
MERRC, which contracted the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to prepare the report, also pointed out that while mandates have increased for the DOE, its staff has been greatly reduced. The report further stated that because the weight of accountability ultimately falls on the students, such weaknesses in the DOE must be addressed. This would help the DOE provide the resources necessary to create a level playing field for students and to make the Education Reform Act work.