Massachusetts Education Again Ranks No. 1 Nationally

Massachusetts Education Again Ranks No. 1 Nationally

In this March 2014 photo, Megan Fehr teaches her third-grade class at the Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence. (Joe Spurr for WBUR)

In this March 2014 photo, Megan Fehr teaches her third-grade class at the Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence. (Joe Spurr for WBUR)

BOSTON — Massachusetts has the best public school system in the country but could do more to help low-income students, according to a new report that ranks states by the quality of their public schools.

Education Week’s annual national report, Quality Counts, gave Massachusetts the top spot because it has the nation’s top fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores, high postsecondary degree attainment and rising AP test scores.

Massachusetts has ranked No. 1 every year since the index began in 2008.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he’s “very proud” of the ranking.

“We’ve focused on doing well; we’ve focused on aiming high in terms of our academic expectation,” said Chester. “Our educators have done the smart, hard work that has put us at the top.”

Massachusetts ranked first in two of the three criteria Education Week’s grading system considers: students’ chance of success (based on everything from family income to outcomes after school) and K-12 achievement levels. In school finances, however, it scored significantly lower because of the disparity between richer and poorer districts.

According to the report, Massachusetts fourth- and eighth-grade students’ test scores have improved at higher rates than the national average since 2003, in all but one area. Eighth-grade reading scores improved, but at a lower rate than the national average.

Despite the state’s high overall ranking, the report shows that Massachusetts is still plagued by one of the highest poverty-based school achievement gaps in the nation.

While Massachusetts students score well in general, many low-income students don’t test as well as more affluent peers.

“As well as we’ve done in Massachusetts, there are many students, too many students, who are not enjoying the level of success that most students are enjoying,” Chester said.

Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman says achievement gaps along poverty lines is the most pressing issue on teachers’ minds.

“It is the most striking thing that we deal with every day,” said Stutman.

In eighth grade, poverty-based achievement gaps expanded to more than 25 points in reading and more than 30 points in math in 2015 — a bigger difference than in 2003, the report says.

“The achievement gaps come from opportunity gaps,” said Rosann Tung, director of research and policy for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “And opportunity gaps are found in most urban districts. They are usually aligned with race and class.”

In 2015, Massachusetts received the highest ranking on national fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math tests, but the achievement gap there between low-income students and peers was the third highest in the nation.

“If you’re basing these kinds of findings on test scores, they’re usually correlated with income and education level,” Tung said.

School spending in Massachusetts also contains large gaps.

Average per-pupil spending in the state is about $15,000. But the range is wide: Six districts spend more than $25,000 per pupil, while seven spend less than $11,000. Only eight states have a greater disparity, the report found.

With the recent passage of the national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, Massachusetts may have more control over its future success.  The new law gives states more responsibility for intervening in low-performing schools — and supporting historically overlooked students, including low-income and minority students.

With the new responsibility comes more leeway. The state will now be able to rate and hold schools accountable on measures of quality that go beyond test scores, such as students’ emotional wellness, school safety, educator engagement or attendance.

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  • Tracy Novick

    Given that only eight states have a greater funding disparity, the Governor and Legislature is overdue for taking up the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s report from November.

  • sapereaudeprime

    In the colonial period, towns had to pay for primary schools for all the kids, including kids whose parents were too poor to pay. Towns that didn’t tax the rich to pay for the education of the poor were fined by the General Court, and the money went to a neighboring town to educate the children. We need more socialism and no corporate capitalist influence at all in the public education system.

  • Betsy Smith

    I am always happy to read that we have the best K-12 education in the country, but that always leaves me wondering why so many students at our community colleges need to take developmental classes before they are ready for regular college courses. Somewhere along the line, there is a gap that needs to be filled.

    Betsy Smith/Retired Adjunct Professor of ESL/Cape Cod Community College

  • Lauren

    This paragraph is misleading: “Average per-pupil spending in the state is about $15,000. But the range is wide: Six districts spend more than $25,000 per pupil, while seven spend less than $11,000. Only eight states have a greater disparity, the report found.”

    Using the 2013-2014 per Pupil Expenditures Report from DESE, those towns are not all considered the most affluent, based on the Town by Town Median Household Income ratings from 2010-2014.

    The six include Cambridge, Martha’s Vineyard, Minuteman Vocational School, Provincetown, South Middlesex, and UpIsland. They are either paying a lot to out place special education students or are technical/vocational schools. The lowest per pupil expenditures include towns like Grafton, Bridgewater, Dracut, etc., who’s mean income is higher than towns like Boston, Springfield, etc. Boston pays around $18,000 per student and Springfield around $15,000 per student.

    • Louise Kennedy

      The paragraph does not say that the high-spending districts are wealthier, only that they spend more.

      • Lauren

        I’m sorry. I meant to say that the paragraph is misleading based on what it’s implying. It doesn’t relate to the rest of the story but readers are mislead to believe that higher income districts spend more.

        • Louise Kennedy

          I do see your point – in fact, as the editor of this post, I initially misread the information. I thought I had clarified it enough, but clearly not! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Lawrence

    Rosann Tung states that it’s race and class that’s aligned with lower scores and poor learning.

    If blacks, minorities or the poor do poorly in education, when others in the same public schools demonstrate high achievement surely it can’t be blamed on the education system or teachers or the neighborhoods they live in etc.. I wonder what “opportunity” the director of research for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform was referring to? Or is it an attempt to avoid putting the blame where it belongs, in a rather politically correct way.

    We we have seen that culturally some groups could care less about learning, would rather listen to gangsta rap than read a book, disrupt class, come from families that don’t value education or just don’t have the intellect or capability or interest.

    These results make Obama’s new plan to house poorer minorities in more affluent neighborhoods (paid for by our taxes,) appear flawed and a underhanded way to provide “advancement” to those who didn’t earn it with the excuse that ” your zip code should not determine educational success.”

    • Tim Fitzgibbon

      The opportunity that is being referred to here is the opportunities to learn outside of school. Many students in Boston for example, travel an hour to get to school and an hour or more home (due to traffic). This means that they can’t participate in many of the after school activities that suburban kids in more affluent neighborhoods can. Many poorer students have more responsibilities at home because many household chores typically done by adults, can’t be due to the working parents.

      It is unfortunate that the immediate assumption is that the parents and families don’t care. As a high school teacher in the public school system, I see parents that are struggling to control students, but at this point they have asked the kids to be adults for so long, asking them to toe their line is asking a lot.

      It is a hard to thing to be a parent, but harder when you don’t have time to be a parent due to your income and hours of work. You don’t have time to read with your kids, don’t have time to play games that require imagination and further strategic thinking. It just happens that many of these parents live in the same area.

      • Lawrence

        Interesting. It goes to show you the many facets of this pressing social problem. As Obama stated in his speeches, single parent households are a problem. As are, parents in prison and failure to read a book to your kid which costs nothing etc..

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