Nearly 90 percent of high school sophomores in Massachusetts earned a proficient rating in English on the latest round of the MCAS tests, the highest tally to date, while scores in lower grades fell or showed minimal improvement.
Behind the gains were sharp increases among AfricanAmerican and Latino students, narrowing persistent achievement gaps with suburban white students.
The new results, released Monday by the state Education Department, showed continued improvement among high school students, who must pass the math, English, and science tests to graduate.
Education officials said the record scores showed that changes are paying dividends, and that a growing number of students are learning what they need to attend college or land a solid job.
“The 10th-grade scores are the ultimate measure of how we’re serving students,” said Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner. “These are very positive results, a huge gain from where we were five or 10 years ago.”
In the past five years, the percentage of sophomores who have scored proficient or advanced in English climbed from 71 to 88. In math, the proficiency rate rose from 68 percent to 78 percent, also a new high.
In science and technology, scores also rose at each of the three grades that are tested in the subject. Almost 70 percent of high school students scored proficient, up from 67 percent last year.
In 10th-grade English, 77 percent of low-income students achieved proficiency, an eight-point jump from last year.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams are given each year to public school students in grades 3 through 10. They have become a yardstick for local school systems and the state’s efforts to improve them, particularly in city schools with high dropout rates and chronically poor records of performance.
Results from individual schools and districts will be released Wednesday.
Chester said improvement at the high school level is traditionally difficult, making the consistent gains remarkable. He said schools are doing a far better job identifying students who need extra help so they don’t slip through the cracks.
Scores at the lower grades were less promising, however, in many cases falling or showing modest gains from last year. The percentage of third-graders who scored proficient in math, for instance, fell from 66 to 61, and fifth-grade English scores saw a similar decline.
Third-grade English scores, widely considered a key predictor of success, held steady at 61 percent, renewing concern that many students are falling behind from a young age.
“We should all be alarmed that 39 percent of third-graders are not proficient readers,” said Amy O’Leary of Strategies for Children, a Boston group that advocates for early childhood education. “We know children who struggle in third grade continue to struggle.”
The group pointed to findings that 1 in 6 children who have trouble reading in third grade do not finish high school by age 19, and other education specialists said the issue has broad ramifications.
“If we’re starting off at relatively low [proficiency] rates, it raises the question of who we’re losing along the way,” said Chad d’Entremont, who directs the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy in Cambridge. “We need to focus our attention to make sure students are achieving at a high level in earlier grades.”
D’Entremont said the high school numbers showed that reform efforts, such as the 2010 state law designed to overhaul chronically poor schools, were making inroads. Still, the divide between students from low-income families and those from wealthier homes remains wide.
In fourth-grade English, 32 percent of African-American students were proficient, compared with 64 percent of white students. In eighth-grade English, 59 percent of Latinos were proficient, compared with 86 percent of white students.
In third-grade English, just 40 percent of low-income students were proficient.
“We’re fighting the headwinds of poverty,” said Marty Walz, a state representative from Boston. “But these scores have been stagnant for a decade. We cannot continue to do more of the same.”
On Monday, the Legislature approved a bill, sponsored by Walz, that would create a panel on early literacy to advise education officials.
Chester said the lack of progress in third-grade English was disappointing, but said that fourth-grade scores rose and that the state’s fourth-graders had led the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a leading national reading test.
Education officials say that scores, with few exceptions, are rising over time.
“Massachusetts educators and students have made important progress in narrowing achievement gaps and increasing student performance while setting a high bar for students and demonstrating unwavering commitment to continuous improvement,” said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the MCAS results. “The state is an important example for the rest of the country as administrators and educators work to put in place bold, comprehensive reform through Race to the Top.”
Scores also rise as students progress through school. Just 38 percent of African-American third-graders scored proficient in English, but 76 percent of African-American 10th-graders attained proficiency. Among Latinos, 36 percent of third-graders are proficient, 71 percent of Latino 10th-graders.
“It shows the reforms are clearly working,” said Jason Williams, who directs Stand for Children Massachusetts, an education advocacy group focused on narrowing the achievement gap. “But you want to stay focused on this, because it can easily slip back.”
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.