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The State of Education in Massachusetts:

A Primer on Standards,

Assessments, and Accountability

October 2009


The State of Education in Massachusetts: A Primer on Standards, Assessments, and Accountability primer was adapted from the 2008—2009 Education Policy Primer by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education by Amy Jerrett and J. Domenic Giandomenico of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce for use by the <>. Special thanks to Dr. Stephen Dolinger and the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education for their cooperation in granting permission to adapt their report.

Standards, Assessments, and Accountability

Various types of assessments are used to measure the progress students make in meeting academic standards. Assessments can take many formsfrom norm–referenced tests that compare each student’s performance to that of their peers to standards–based assessments that compare each student’s performance to academic standards. Assessments can range from mostly multiple–choice items to short–answer questions or longer performance tasks engaging students in real–world problems. When coupled with other key indicators (e.g., graduation rates and attendance), assessments form the basis of state accountability systems.

Key Policy Points

  • Standards have the potential to be an engine of change and improvement, but only if states redesign other system componentsparticularly assessments and curriculumaround them.

  • States that have focused on aligning various components of their education system with standards have shown improvement in student achievement and school quality.

  • Policymakers must try to maximize assessment quality and utility while creating an efficient and cost–effective assessment system.

  • When designing and reforming accountability systems, policymakers must utilize data to determine how to measure, judge, and react to teacher performance.

No Child Left Behind Act

Since the 2001 introduction of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, rarely has a conversation among educators and policymakers occurred without mention of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), standardized tests, Highly Qualified Teachers, or proficiency standards. While many states had their own accountability systems in place long before the implementation of NCLB, legislation brightened the spotlight on public education, created a common educational language, raised awareness of achievement gaps among student subgroups (e.g., Latino, African–American, English language learners, and students with disabilities) boldly raised the performance bar for students in all states by setting a goal of 100% proficiency in core academic subjects by 2014. NCLB was signed into law by former President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002, as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the central federal law in K—12 education. The ESEA was first enacted in 1965 and most recently reauthorized in 1994. As the latest incarnation of the ESEA, NCLB has expanded the federal role in education and become a focal point of educational policy. The legislation, coming at a time of wide public concern about the state of education, sets in place requirements that reach into every public school in America. It takes particular aim at improving the educational attainment of disadvantaged students.

At the core of NCLB are several measures designed to improve student achievement and increase statewide accountability for educational excellence. Figure 1 illustrates key components of the legislation.
Figure 1: Major Provisions Of NCLB

Early in 2007, conversation about the law’s reauthorization began, with lawmakers and education policy experts weighing in on the changes necessary to improve NCLB. However, as debates over the landmark legislation continued in Congress, prospects were fading that the law would be reauthorized before President George W. Bush left office. Now, experts believe that the act may not be reauthorized until 2011.

No Child Left Behind in Massachusetts

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Please describe in this section how NCLB has been implemented in Massachusetts. Each state submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Education outlining procedures for developing standards and an accountability system. As part of that plan, each state defines what constitutes Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in increasing student achievement toward the goal of all students reaching proficient levels on state assessments by 2014. States must set the same goals for all schools and students. You can obtain a copy of your state plan through your state department of education.


Districts (Local Education Agencies)

A school shall be identified as in Needs Improvement status if the school has not made AYP in the same subject for two consecutive years.

A Local Education Agency (LEA) shall be identified as in Needs Improvement status if the LEA has not made AYP in the same subject for two consecutive years at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

A school shall be removed from Needs Improvement status if the school has made AYP for two consecutive years.

An LEA shall be removed from Needs Improvement status if the LEA has made AYP for two consecutive years.

Escalation in levels of Needs Improvement status shall be based on the school’s failure to make AYP in the same subject for two or more consecutive years.

Escalation in levels of Needs Improvement status shall be based on the district’s failure to make AYP in the same subject for two or more consecutive years.

Figure 2: Identification of Needs Improvement Schools and Districts
As a result of NCLB, each state has developed a plan for improvement in measurable terms of student performance that Local Education Agencies (LEAs) must achieve within the given time frames specified by the NCLB Act. Adequate yearly progress refers to the timeline set by states such that all students will make gradual progress towards the goal of achieving 100% proficiency on state assessments by the 2013—14 school year. Schools that fail to meet that adequate yearly progress timeline for two consecutive years are labeled “in need of improvement.” Schools within an LEA or a state must also collectively meet the agreed–upon adequate yearly progress measures or will similarly be labeled “in need of improvement.”

Of all the education reforms that have emerged over the past fifteen years, none has been more powerful and enduring than the push to establish challenging academic standards for students. Today, the standards–based approach constitutes the primary reform strategy of most states and school districts. They are establishing higher standards, to improve efficiency, generate challenging curricula, create greater system coherence, and serve as the basis for new ways of measuring the performance of students, teachers, and schools.

The 1983 report A Nation at Risk1 is largely cited as the catalyst for the modern–day standards–based reform movement. The report renewed focus on the preparedness of America’s public school students for life after high school and their ability to compete in a global economy has underscored the importance of having rigorous academic standards for all students. Standards are central to realizing the aims of America’s public schools as a core element of the country’s economic future by delineating what students are expected to know and be able to do. As such, they are the foundation of education reform.
In the 1990s, states established statewide content standard documents that set out the goals for what students should know and be able to do in core academic subjects in K—12 education. Today, every state has academic standards that articulate the core knowledge and skills that students should learn from kindergarten through grade 12. These standards play an important role in states’ education systems, as seen in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Standards–Based Reform: Aligning Standards, Assessments, and Accountability2

Common Core State Standards Initiative

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices, in partnership with Achieve, Inc.; ACT; and the College Board, have initiated a state–led process of developing and adopting a common core of state standards (Common Core State Standards Initiative). The main concepts of this initiative revolve around increasing the rigor and relevance of standards across all participating states by creating a common core of standards in English–language arts and mathematics for grades K—12. Taking into account and building on current educational reform, standards will be available for review by the states throughout the entire process and a third party validation group will analyze the final standards.

The goal of the Initiative is to release the core of high school standards and develop K—12 grade–by–grade standards by late 2009.

As of September 2009, two states—Alaska and Texas—have not signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.


Student assessments, a crucial part of an accountability system, measure whether or not students are learning the curriculum that the state’s standards are based upon. While various types of assessments have long been used by classroom teachers to provide evidence of student learning, they have become an increasingly critical component of state and educational systems nationwide. Policymakers are relying more than ever on large–scale tests to make high–stakes decisions about students and schools. States are using assessments to motivate students and schools and to hold teachers and administrators accountable for raising achievement. Throughout the country, parents, businesses, and elected officials are using test scores as indicators of the quality of our educational system.3

NCLB increased states’ focus on assessments with its requirement that states annually test students in reading and mathematics in grades 3–8 and once in high school. The law requires that states use tests aligned with their academic–content standards either by building assessments specifically designed to reflect those standards or by modifying commercially produced, off–the–shelf tests.
Proficiency in terms of Assessments

The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (for a more in depth explanation of the NAEP Assessment see “National Measures of Student Achievement”) uncovered that every state has its own interpretation of what constitutes as a student being academically “proficient.” Due to these differences in assessments and the determined levels of proficiency, it becomes impossible to directly compare one state’s proficiency levels to another. When the NAEP assessment created standards for academic proficiency based on what students should know by grade four as well as by grade eight, it found that the majority of states did not reach the standards but still reported to have high levels of proficiency. In Figure 4, you will see a graphical representation of the discrepancy between states, versus NAEP in what constitutes as “proficient”.

Figure 4: Average Difference Between State and NAEP Proficiency Rates, 2007

For instance, a Wisconsin 4th grade reading student scoring at the state’s proficient level would be able to answer the question in Figure 5, while a Massachusetts “proficient” student would be expected to answer the substantially more difficult question. Because of this considerable difference on the meaning of the term, state comparisons run the risk of not being valid or reliable.

Figure 5: Different Meanings of “Proficiency” 4


The standards–based educational reform movement has allowed accountability systems to become performance–based. Once academic content standards are defined, and school and student progress are measured against them, performance can be measured and evaluated. As a result, state leaders are closer to having a better picture of student, school, and system performance as well as the ability to change and improve the way education policy and practice decisions are made.

Performance–based accountability systems are, however, highly complex and involve a range of interconnected design and technical issues from test reliability and validity, to incentives and interventions, to how data are collected, analyzed and reported. Policymakers must determine, among other things, whose performance should be judged, the level of performance expected, relevant measures of performance, what constitutes satisfactory progress toward established goals and what rewards and consequences will be imposed for superior or inadequate performance. Furthermore, NCLB has significant implications for state accountability systems in terms of student testing, reporting requirements, and increasing interventions in persistently low–performing schools.
With the increased accountability mandated by NCLB, all states are now moving toward statewide systems to meet the goal of all students achieving proficiency by 2014. Today, all states have accountability systems that meet the requirements of NCLB for reporting school and district Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) determinations.
The development of a statewide accountability system requires a lot of time and an extreme amount of work on the part of state and local educational policymakers. Planning and developing must address numerous dimensions—policies, assessment measures, data systems, consensus on indicators, definition of AYP, data reporting design, rewards, sanctions, federal requirements, and plans for assistance to schools in need of improvement.
Due to increased federal requirements, state accountability systems have common elements—assessments, standards, performance reporting, and, in most cases, consequences of performance. As was exposed in the 2007 Leaders and Laggards: A State–by–State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce5 and the Center for American Progress, states have found different ways to define what it means for schools to succeed, what indicators to include in their definition of success, and what the consequences will be.

In compliance with state and federal law, schools and districts that fail to meet certain accountability requirements are subject to consequences and must develop plans to help improve student achievement. Schools and districts receive consequences based on their AYP determination. Analysis of unmet AYP along with guidance from the state department of education, dictates the nature and degree of the required improvement plans (e.g., school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring). In accordance with NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education provides a system of intensive and sustained support for those schools and districts identified as Needs Improvement, a designation that stems from AYP status.

Under NCLB, public schools and districts that do not meet AYP in the first year face no consequences. However, the school or district faces escalating consequences if they fail to meet AYP for consecutive years. Districts in the Needs Improvement category must first explain to the parents what the label signifies, how the school compares, and what it’s doing to improve. A school improvement plan must be created to cover a two–year period. This plan is a written document that is based on scientifically based research, focuses on core subjects, mandates increased professional development, and stimulates greater parental involvement. In addition to creating and implementing the school improvement plan, the school must offer students the option of transferring to another school in the district not under the title of “Needs Improvement.” Not meeting AYP for three years requires the school to provide supplemental education services or free tutoring to needy students. A fourth year of failure triggers corrective action, which could entail staffing changes, curriculum reform, or the extension of the school day and year. Finally, if the school fails for a fifth consecutive year, the district must restructure that school, either by turning it into a charter school, replacing the majority of the staff, hiring an educational management company to operate the school, turning it over to the state, or by adopting another remedy of the state’s choosing. 6

Figure 6: NCLB In Need of Improvement Consequences

Actions Required By School

Number of Years Under “Needs Improvement” Status






School Transfer Options

Supplemental Services

Corrective Action

Restructuring (Planning)

Restructuring (Implementation)

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In this section, discuss how your state has developed academic standards and a state testing system to meet federal requirements.
Data Analysis and Public Reporting

Figure 7: AYP Criteria for Massachusetts Schools7


Total Number of Schools (2007—2008)

Total Number of Schools
That Did Not Make AYP (2006—07)

Total Number of Schools
That Did Not Make AYP

Total Number of Schools Identified for

Percent of All
Schools Not
Making AYP

Percentage Of All
Schools Identified as
In Need of







Under NCLB, states and school districts are required to inform the public about student performance and program effectiveness on an annual basis. Reporting requirements include:

  • Disaggregated (subgroup) performance indicators analyzed for accountability purposes.

  • Specific school–level accountability consequences mandated for a school that fails to meet its improvement targets.

  • State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) accountability reports for each school year prior to the next school year.

  • Reports both physically and linguistically accessible to a broad range of stakeholders.

Longitudinal Data

Most current data systems are only capable of tracking general data information about a collective cohort for a single year’s performance. For example, any given state’s data system right now would be able to tell you how a school’s 4th or 8th grade class performed on their state’s NCLB performance assessments each year. However, these data systems typically cannot track either growth or decline in student achievement over a period of time, nor would they be able to track a student’s performance into postsecondary education. This is a typical argument against merit pay programs for teachers, as current data available is unable to accurately assess the value individual teachers provides to their students. Essentially, the current data systems that most states employ only collect the most cursory information available.

Longitudinal data systems collect high-quality data on individual students over an extended period of time. These systems use unique, statewide student identifiers, allowing cross-jurisdictional data systems to collaborate. In doing so, a longitudinal data system can more accurately inform schools, policymakers, and the community in developing strategies to improve student achievement and graduation rates.
The Data Quality Campaign, a national organization devoted to promoting better educational data systems, has identified 10 essential elements of a quality longitudinal data collection system. These elements include having unique student identifiers, enrollment information, statewide teacher identifiers capable to matching to their students, collecting information on untested students, transcript data, college readiness test information, graduation rates, linking K–12 data to postsecondary education data, and a system for auditing the data collected to ensure accuracy. Figure 8 displays the results of their 2008 survey on the progress of implementing these 10 essential elements across the nation.
Figure 8: Longitudinal Data System Progression of Essential Elements

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Data Reporting in Massachusettscustomize logo.png
In this section, discuss how your state collects and reports its data. Make sure to mention any new innovations your state has made in terms of data reporting. For more information on Massachusetts from the Data Quality Campaign, please visit

Figure 9: Progress on Essential Elements of the Development of a Longitudinal Data System in


Yes/ No


Unique statewide student identifier



Student–level enrollment, demographic and program participation information



Ability to match individual students’ test records from year to year to measure growth



Information on untested students



Teacher identifier system with ability match teachers to students



Student–level transcript information, including information on courses completed and grades earned



Student–level college readiness test scores



Student–level graduation and dropout data



Ability to match student records between the Pre–K—12 and post–secondary systems



State data audit system assessing data quality, validity, and reliability


State Fiscal Stabilization Funds

The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) program is a one–time appropriation of $53.6 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Of the amount appropriated, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded governors approximately $48.6 billion by formula in exchange for a commitment to advance essential education reforms to benefit students from early learning through postsecondary education, including: creating college– and career– ready standards and high–quality, valid and reliable assessments for all students; developing and using pre–K through postsecondary and career data systems; increasing teacher effectiveness and ensuring an equitable distribution of qualified teachers; and turning around the lowest–performing schools. The remaining funds will go towards State Incentive Grants such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.8

Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation

Race to the Top is funded with $4.35 billion from the SFSF. This initiative supports states’ efforts to drive substantial gains in student achievement with four main goals in mind: using data to drive instruction, raising standards, turning around historically low–performing schools, and improving teacher and principal quality.

Investing in Innovation is an initiative to put into action a recommendation of our country's innovation leaders, mayors, and teachers. Part of this investment would be devoted to commissioning a blue–ribbon private sector panel of premier business leaders, educators, researchers, and others to recommend to the Secretary of Education successful programs and innovations across the country. The panel will also be charged with making those successful practices and lessons learned universally available. The initiative is funded with the remaining State Incentive Grant money of $650 million. This money will be awarded to school districts and non–profit groups with strong track records of results.
In addition, ARRA provides $250 million in grants for State Longitudinal Data Systems which is a competitive grant program managed by the Institute of Education Sciences. The grant helps states implement and use state longitudinal data systems (based on the Data Quality Campaign’s 10 elements, but also postsecondary and workforce data).
The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance for the Race to the Top program on July 27, 2009. It can be found at

International Measures of Student Achievement
The increasing globalization of the world economy has heightened the focus of business, political and educational leaders on the competitiveness of the American workforce. There is growing recognition that the educational performance of students has significant implications for any country’s economic vitality. To compare the achievement of students across the globe and gauge a country’s economic potential, many nations participate in international assessments of student achievement. Two such measures, in which the United States takes part, are the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
With the evolution of technology and its power in the economy, stress on science and math education is greater now than ever before. A country that is outperforming others in math and science will inevitably produce more workers who will be at the forefront of innovation.


Figure 10: International/National Assessments9

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Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Figure 11: PISA: United States
15 Year Old Students




23rd out of 29 countries

20th out of 29 countries


23rd out of 29 countries

21st out of 30 countries

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is administered by the Organisation for Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD), an association of nations committed to promoting sustainable economic growth. PISA was administered in 2000, 2003, and 2006, focusing on reading, mathematics, and science, respectively.
More than 400,000 students from 57 countries, making up approximately 90% of the world economy, took part in PISA in 2006, including all 30 OECD member countries and 27 non–OECD partner countries and economies. Nationally representative samples were drawn, representing 20 million 15–year–olds. The focus of the assessment was on science, but the assessment also included reading and mathematics and collected data on student, family, and institutional factors that could help explain differences in performance.

Since the first administration of the PISA in 2000, the United States has lost ground in science and has held steady in math among other participating OECD countries.

Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

Figure 12: TIMSS United States
Fourth Grade Ranking




12th out of 25 countries

6th out of 25 countries


11th out of 36 countries

8th out of 36 countries

Figure 13: TIMSS United States
Eight Grade Ranking




15th out of 45 countries

9th out of 45 countries


9th out of 49 countries

11th out of 49 countries

TIMSS provides reliable and timely data on the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students compared to students in other countries. TIMSS was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to compare students' educational achievement across borders. Each participating country, like the United States, is required to draw from random samples of schools. Each TIMSS assessment is administered to 4th and 8th graders in the areas of mathematics and science. So far, TIMSS data have been collected in 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2007.

National Measures of

Student Achievement

Students in all states are often assessed using the same national tests. By examining the data from these national achievement measures, policymakers and educators can begin to compare the educational status of different states and regions. National measures of student achievement include the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and high school graduation rates.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

Commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, NAEP is a congressionally mandated program of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The purpose of the national assessment is to gather information to aid educators, legislators, and others in improving the educational experience of youth in our country. Its primary goals are to measure the current status of the educational attainment of young Americans and to report changes and long–term trends.

NAEP is administered at least once every two years in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8, and 12. The assessment is given to statistically representative samples of students from each state, and is the only test that compares student performance from state to state.

Discuss your state’s ranking on the NAEP exam in terms of what progress is being made and where improvement can occur.customize logo.png

Figure 14:Massachusetts’s NAEP Score

These charts represent 2007 NAEP scores for 4th and 8th grade mathematics and reading, with the five highest performing states in blue and five lowest performing states in red.
Graduation Rates

The social and economic viability of a community strongly correlates with the number of high school graduates it produces. Failure to complete high school has several troubling effects on individuals and their families, such as reduced earning potential, unemployment, and limited opportunities to pursue certain job and education opportunities. Yet the educational attainment of individuals also has a profound impact on their community. As the number of high school non–graduates rises, communities bear the costs of reduced revenue to local businesses, increased costs to support the unemployed and the underemployed, increased costs for health care, and the need to import college and technical school graduates to fill the needs of local employers.

Many states use different formulas when calculating their high school graduation rates. To compare the graduation rates across all states, it is necessary to use research from a national database that employs common methodology for all calculations. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides this data; however, because of the time required to collect and analyze the data, the most current graduation rates available from NCES are typically a few years old.
In October 2008, then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced, as part of the final regulations of NCLB, that all states must use a standard formula to calculate how many students graduate from high school on time and how many drop out. Additionally, the data must be easily accessible for parents and teachers. States will begin reporting their graduation rates using this criteria beginning in the 2011–12 school year and will use it for accountability purposes in 2012–2013.
The final rules announced by the secretary stated that parents must be notified in a clear and timely way about their public school choices and supplemental education service options. The regulations seek to ensure that states make more information available to the public about what tutoring providers are available, how these providers are approved and monitored, and, most importantly, how effective they are in helping students improve academically.
Massachusetts Future Policy Objectives and Goals:

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We encourage you to add your own conclusion, making policy statements your organization would like to see acted upon moving forward. Below are some ideas to consider and elaborate upon as necessary for Massachusetts:

  • Developing academic standards

  • Increasing the number of students and schools that make AYP

  • Aligning curriculum, standards, assessments, and accountability

  • Participating in the Common Core State Initiative

  • Tailoring assessments and getting results

  • Creating a more valid and reliable way to calculate Massachusetts’s proficiency rate based on the NAEP

  • Applying for Race to the Top Funds

  • Developing Massachusetts’s longitudinal data system


1 Can be found at

2 Source: A+ Education Foundation, “Accountability, Assessments and Standards,” Alabama Education Policy Primer: A Guide to Understanding K—12 Schools.

3 Nancy Kober, “What Tests Can and Cannot Tell Us,” Test Talk for Leaders (Center on Education Policy, October 2002).

4 Wisconsin Department of Education:

Massachusetts Department of Education:

5 Leaders and Laggards:

6 No Child Left Behind by Fredrick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli






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