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School reform midpoint

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LIKE A teacher poised with chalk before an empty blackboard, the school year starts with unlimited potential. But the seasonal optimism is muddled this year by mixed messages.

Massachusetts students lead the nation in SAT scores, with a combined 1041 on verbal and math tests, 1 point higher than New Hampshire. At the same time, the number of "low performing" schools as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act is expected to jump in data to be released today.

Meanwhile, the promise of the state Education Reform Act of 1993 is being threatened by underfunding. Crucial remediation funds to help lagging students pass the MCAS tests were cut in last year's budget, and class sizes have begun to creep back up in many systems.

Yet the K-12 advocates find they are not alone in seeking more education dollars from the Legislature. Supporters of greatly expanded early childhood education won breakthrough approval of a new state department in this year's budget. And public higher education is also lobbying aggressively to restore some of the funds -- and affordability to students -- lost in the last three years.

It is time for Massachusetts to take a hard look at the progress that has been made in the past decade, to set broadened goals for the next, and to fashion policies that can make those goals a reality.

The first step is critical self-assessment.

With a full year of high-stakes MCAS testing under its belt, the state can take pride in impressive achievements. This May, 80 percent passed the MCAS tests as sophomores. And state SAT scores have shown gains for an extraordinary 13 years in a row.

But it would be a bad mistake to use such indicators to declare education reform a success. The state is only at the midpoint of a truly ambitious campaign. Failure to press on would betray the enormous investment already made to such good effect.

Immediate challenges include making sure that students who have trouble with their studies and the MCAS tests get the individual attention that will carry them through, closing the performance gap still shown, on average, among urban schools and minority students, and ensuring that curriculums are robust and not tied too strictly to the basic verbal and math skills needed for the MCAS requirements.

At the same time, the focus should be shifting quickly away from making sure as many students as possible pass the MCAS tests to having them achieve proficiency. This is required by the No Child Left Behind Act, but it is also required by the nature of the Massachusetts economy, which demands a well-educated and dextrous work force to drive the knowledge-based businesses that are the state's future.   Continued...

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