The project: In Massachusetts, high school students must pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) 10th grade standardized test in multiple subjects in order to receive a diploma. This “competency determination” for high school graduation has been in effect since 2003. John Papay, Richard Murnane, and John Willett published a series of papers in the 2010s that estimated the causal effect of failing these tests on high school graduation. The state’s appetite for actionable research and data-informed policy culminated in the creation of a research-practice partnership in 2019 between researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown and key staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Our partnership continues to study questions related to the competency determination policy, but also conducts broader investigations of how students progress through the state's K-16 education system and into the workforce. Our research agenda is currently centered on three main areas of analysis: First, we extend earlier analyses to look at the effects of the high-stakes exit examination and changes in the policy on students’ longer-run outcomes. Second, we study student pathways from the K-12 system into the state’s higher education system, and the impacts of schools and educational policies on this progress, particularly related to students from historically marginalized backgrounds. Third, we are engaging in a range of analyses examining educational equity in the state more broadly.

The data: We leverage longitudinal, student-level PK-12 data from 2002 to the present. We link this information to data about students’ college enrollment and graduation via the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and the National Student Clearinghouse, as well as to earnings data from the Massachusetts Unemployment Insurance system. Our data affords us the opportunity to follow students through all potential milestones in their educational careers. Additionally, the richness of our PK-12 data allows us to conduct nuanced analyses that take into account many aspects of students’ elementary and secondary educational experiences, including standardized test scores, attendance and suspension rates, high-school coursework and GPA, and the demographic profiles of the schools they attend.