Susan E. Szachowicz vividly remembers her disappointment when she learned of her school’s initial results on the new statewide tests in Massachusetts over a decade ago. In 1998, three-quarters of the 10th graders at Brockton High School failed the mathematics exam and nearly half didn’t pass the English/language arts test.

"It was a wake-up call," recalls Szachowicz, who was a history teacher and head of the social science department at the time. Brockton High is an urban campus with almost 4,300 students, serving a diverse and mostly low-income population about 30 miles south of Boston. "Even if people criticize the emphasis on the test, you can’t blame the test for such failure."

Szachowicz explains that these poor results prompted her school to take action. Starting with the class of 2003, students across the state were required to pass the English and math tests to graduate. Since then, many changes have occurred at Brockton High, including a significant increase in test scores that has gained widespread recognition. The school’s transformation involved a thorough revamp of its academic program.

According to Szachowicz, Brockton High, the largest high school in the state, has made great efforts to ensure that instruction in all core subjects is rigorous and aligned with the highly regarded and demanding Massachusetts state standards. The high-stakes exit exams have been a crucial part of the state’s efforts to ensure that these standards are not ignored. It is one thing to establish high standards, but it’s another thing altogether to influence what happens in thousands of classrooms across the state.

Craig D. Jerald, an education consultant based in Washington, notes that even the best standards in the world are meaningless if they don’t impact the way teachers teach. It is difficult to determine to what extent the Massachusetts standards, or any state’s standards for that matter, have permeated schools and classrooms. Nevertheless, various education leaders and analysts suggest that Massachusetts has made significant progress in this area.

S. Paul Reville, the state’s secretary of education, believes that the standards have had a powerful impact, thanks in large part to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the main instrument through which the standards are implemented. Schools are now highly focused on their performance on the MCAS.

Many states look to their neighboring states for guidance in developing their own academic content standards. California, Indiana, and Massachusetts are frequently mentioned as models, with each being cited at least 10 times by other states.

Over the past decade, the state of Massachusetts has achieved notable improvements in math and English/language arts on the MCAS, particularly among 10th graders. The state has also seen gains over time on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as "the nation’s report card," and has some of the highest average NAEP scores in the country. A 2008 survey of Massachusetts educators revealed that over 90% of teachers and administrators agreed that the curriculum in their schools aligned with the state standards. However, a 2006 report from the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research suggested that many school districts were still not completely onboard with the standards.

Alignment Challenge

Massachusetts may have an advantage over other states when it comes to implementing its standards in classrooms because of the strong alignment between its standards and the MCAS. If state assessments do not test students on the standards, it is less likely that those standards will impact instruction. Andrew J. Porter, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that the degree of alignment between a state’s test and standards varies from state to state, but it is usually not significantly different from alignment with another state’s standards. In a study by the RAND Corp. on the impact of standards-based reforms, a large majority of teachers in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania reported trying to align their instruction with the standards. However, they also noted challenges such as excessive content in the standards or unclear standards.

Enlisting Teachers

Massachusetts was an early adopter of standards-based reform through the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993. This legislation increased state funding for education and aimed to equalize spending across districts. It also called for the development of academic standards, known as curriculum frameworks, in core subjects and for these standards to be aligned with assessments. The state crafted rigorous, clear, and user-friendly frameworks with input from K-12 educators. Teachers at Brockton High School, like principal Susan Szachowicz and English/language arts teacher Jodie Nelson-Holzman, find the standards accessible and useful in their classrooms. Massachusetts provides schools with detailed reports on individual student performance and aligns teacher tests and certification requirements with the standards. Students in Massachusetts must pass exams in English/language arts, math, and science/technology/engineering to graduate. The state has put a high emphasis on testing, which has been instrumental in the implementation of the standards in classrooms.

‘Too Much Testing’?

It is worth noting that some individuals express concerns about excessive testing.

"Now that we are all aware of how to effectively guide students to success on the MCAS, the same principles apply to helping them meet their graduation requirements," she states. "None of our students who are on track to graduate will fail this test."

"You understand that without high stakes, we may not have pushed our students as hard because we wouldn’t have needed to," adds Michele M. Finnegan, the history teacher and head of the school’s social science department.

Another critique of the Massachusetts standards effort is that the state hasn’t done enough to support districts in meeting the standards, such as aligning their curricula and improving their instruction and academic performance.

Secretary Reville, who was on the state board of education when the 1993 education law was passed, doesn’t disagree.

"As a state, we have overlooked the importance of building the capacity of districts to deliver high-quality curriculum and instruction in the 16 years since 1993 education reform," he says. "Until we prioritize building capacity, we won’t achieve our standards."

A Comprehensive Approach

The state standards and the MCAS have greatly influenced the way Brockton High approaches its curriculum and instruction, says Szachowicz. However, she emphasizes that the standards haven’t led to a narrow focus on "teaching to the test" just to increase student scores.

Close examination of the annual test data has helped identify areas that need extra attention, she says. This analysis led to the development of a schoolwide literacy initiative in the early 2000s that focuses on reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning.

"The content standards outline what we need to teach, but the literacy initiative explains how students need to demonstrate their understanding," Szachowicz explains.

The schoolwide approach means that literacy skills are taught in math class, art and cooking courses, and even gym class. Additionally, the school has recently taken steps to incorporate key math skills, such as graphing, into other subjects.

"We’ve asked art teachers, we’ve asked gym teachers to incorporate graphs," says Nelson-Holzman, the English/language arts teacher.

Szachowicz believes that the schoolwide approach reinforces lessons for students in different contexts while allowing the school to offer a diverse range of courses.

"Some schools have eliminated electives and doubled up on math and English in response to the MCAS," she says. "Our approach is to take the skills students need and integrate them into all subject areas."

State Recognition

The school’s efforts seem to be yielding results. To acknowledge Brockton High’s progress, Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, visited the school in September to publicly announce the latest statewide MCAS results.

Overall, 94 percent of Brockton High 10th graders passed the English exam from the previous spring, with 78 percent achieving a rating of "proficient" or "advanced." In math, 85 percent passed, with 60 percent proficient or advanced. Although the percentage of students reaching proficiency or higher in math was below the statewide average of 75 percent, the results were a vast improvement compared to the 7 percent who achieved those levels in 1998, reflecting steady progress over time.

Furthermore, the school met state performance targets last year for all student subgroups mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, including different racial and socioeconomic groups. The state education agency commended Brockton High for its MCAS performance, considering its low-income student population.

Taking a step back, Szachowicz believes that while many factors have contributed to the school’s progress over time, with Secretary Reville and other observers highlighting her leadership as critical, she believes that the core of the matter is "excellent instruction" aligned with high standards.

"It’s about what happens in the classroom between teachers and students," she says. "Teachers have a clear understanding of what they need to teach, and they do it effectively."


  • luisschneider

    Luis Schneider is a 29-year-old blogger and teacher from Hamburg, Germany. He runs a successful educational blog and is passionate about helping others learn. Luis has a degree in education and has been teaching for several years. He is a highly-skilled educator and has a lot to share with others.

State Standards Loom Large In Mass. Classrooms


Luis Schneider is a 29-year-old blogger and teacher from Hamburg, Germany. He runs a successful educational blog and is passionate about helping others learn. Luis has a degree in education and has been teaching for several years. He is a highly-skilled educator and has a lot to share with others.

Post navigation