Making Utah education exceptional – better tests (and maybe more of them?)

Several readers sent me copies of a recent article in City Journal, entitled “The Massachusetts Exception.” They wanted me to share the article’s central conclusion (see especially the portion of the quotation in bold):

It’s common knowledge that in 1983, a federal report called A Nation at Risk indicted the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American public education and called for a school system that would be among the best in the world. Far less well known is that only one state effectively responded to that challenge: Massachusetts.


Today, however, federal initiatives—especially the push for national education standards, which may have beneficial effects in lower-performing states and which Massachusetts has adopted—threaten to undermine the reforms that made the Bay State the nation’s unquestioned educational leader.

I’m happy to share this excellent article with readers. But I may disappoint some common core opponents, because I drew some other lessons from the article. Yes, Massachusetts is almost certainly worse off for succumbing to the combined bribery and bullying that led most states to adopt the common core. What’s far more interesting to me, however, is how and why Massachusetts achieved such strong educational results in the first place.

The answer seems to be a combination of strong standards and even stronger tests.

Some further quotes from the article:

A crucial piece of the reform required the state to develop liberal-arts-rich “curriculum frameworks,” which would help schools choose curricula by specifying the academic content that students should be able to master. . .Developed after years of public debate, with input from teachers and subject-matter experts, the frameworks were internationally benchmarked, with an eye toward authentic college readiness. High-quality literature made up about 80 to 90 percent of the English content. In math, students were required to start studying algebra in the eighth grade.

In other words, Massachusetts beefed up its standards, and these standards focused on content – actually identifying what the students were expected to know.

And then Massachusetts students had to demonstrate that they’d really learned this demanding content.

Governor Weld’s shake-up also accelerated a second component of the reform law: the development of new state tests based on the frameworks. These tests, called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), were first administered in 1998 and also earned accolades. The tests applied pressure to school systems to adopt rigorous curricula; if they didn’t, their students’ scores would show it. After a state Board of Higher Education study found a strong correlation between MCAS results and college success, the legislature made MCAS scores the measure by which University of Massachusetts scholarships would be granted. Another test was developed for new teachers, who now had to demonstrate communication and literacy skills and the subject-matter knowledge to teach the material in the frameworks.

So better standards and better tests produced the Massachusetts “exception”. I especially like the requirement that TEACHERS also needed to pass tests demonstrating that they had indeed mastered what their students were expected to learn.

What are the lessons for Utah, if we want to move beyond states’ rights arguments (however valid) and think about what it would take to see “The Utah Exception” in The City Journal a few years from now?

More on that in my next post.



  1. Mike

    Just because some one can memorize the material and regurgitate it on a test means nothing. Unless one can take the information and apply it in practical applications, it means nothing.

    I truly can’t understand how some political parties are trying to demonize critical thinking.

  2. howard beale

    The computer lab at my local high school can’t be used by teachers for the last six weeks of school because of testing. That means a valuable resource for teachers can’t be used for student learning so mindless assessments of student learning can take place. We certainly don’t need more tests and like Mike said well above, unless any assessment shows practical applications, the assessment has little value. Students should be able to produce something. In my opinion, no senior should be able to graduate high school without a presenting a portfolio, electronic or otherwise, of their learning. What if students had to show up in front of a panel of teachers, administrations and other experts and make a practical presentation about what they learned in school, show integration among the different subjects. This would then be a valuable type of assessment for our students.

  3. Sarah

    One phrase that has been forgotten in the above comments is that the MCAS scores strongly “correlated to college success”. I am not an advocate for those tests in particular but at least it is helping educators to evaluate if students will or will not be successful in college.
    Unfortunately, I hear all too often that testing is not doing the job that we think it should and therefore we should do away with it, or or use less of it. With the technology we have, why can’t we figure out a better way to test than our current high stakes testing? Why not create software that can test concepts at moderate intervals throughout the school year to make sure the concept is learned AND mastered so that it becomes part of the students’ knowledge, and not just short term memory regurgitation? There is not enough room to go into all the reasons why, but suffice it to say that there needs to be serious reforms.

    • Mary McConnell

      I think you make an excellent point. Testing technology has indeed made it much easier to give teachers immediate feedback about how and what students are learning – during the school year, when we can still do something with this information! But taking advantage of this technology WILL require investment in tests, computers, and the people who keep the computers running.

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