A key spark for education reform came in 1983 with "A Nation at Risk," a report warning that student achievement wasn't keeping pace – at home or abroad.
"In Massachusetts, people really took the report seriously," says David Driscoll, who became the state's deputy commissioner of education in 1993 and served as commissioner from 1999 to 2007.
Leaders from state government, education, and business came together to form the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, creating high standards and curriculum frameworks in math, reading, social studies, and science, as well as related tests for fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders – the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).
To give those standards teeth, certain scores on 10th-grade tests became a requirement for high school graduation. Students scoring too low receive extra help and can retake the tests.
The emphasis on high-stakes testing led some teachers and parents to protest, worried that it would nudge borderline students into dropping out – a debate that later resonated nationally because of the testing regimen established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
"There was tremendous pushback, bills filed every year to do away with it, but we stuck with it," Mr. Driscoll says.
After the new system took hold, significant learning gains among Massachusetts students were reflected in both state and national tests.
The MCAS "made us feel as if Massachusetts had higher standards of learning than other states because that test is harder than other, average tests," Stevens says.
One big reason people came to accept the reforms: The state boosted education funding by more than 10 percent for each of the first six years – targeting the money largely to schools and districts with the highest needs. To date, the 1993 law has channeled $34.5 billion in extra state funding to school districts.