Metro

New tests bring worse scores for Mass. students

Some schools could shift their focus to more test prep.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
Some schools could shift their focus to more test prep.

Massachusetts public school students in grades 3-8 performed worse on the state’s newly redesigned MCAS tests than the older version — often by eye-popping margins, according to a Globe review of MCAS results being released Wednesday.

Significantly fewer students at each grade level scored in the top two categories in English and math last spring than their predecessors did in 2014, the last time all public schools in Massachusetts administered the old MCAS, the Globe review found.

One of the biggest gaps in performance emerged in Grade 8 English, where just 49 percent of test-takers were rated as meeting or exceeding expectations, the top two scoring categories under the new test. By comparison in 2014, 79 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced — the top two categories in that year’s test.

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State officials say the new Next Generation MCAS, which is designed to be taken on computers but also includes a traditional paper-and-pencil version, is more rigorous than its predecessor. Math problems have been described by educators as more challenging because students often must demonstrate how they arrived at their answers. Writing portions prompt students to write more deeply and analyze and compare various texts.

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Consequently, the bar for the top two scoring categories is higher than it was under the old MCAS, making it difficult to draw apples-to-apples comparisons, state officials said.

The goal of the new MCAS is to provide more accurate data about whether students will be prepared for future success. College officials complain that too many students cannot handle college-level work, forcing them to take remedial courses, even though they scored well on the old MCAS. Employers also say they’ve had difficulty hiring workers who can think critically and communicate clearly.

“We need to send clearer signals to students and families,” said James Peyser, state education secretary, in a conference call Tuesday.

State officials encourage parents whose children scored in the two lowest categories on the new MCAS — “partially meeting expectations” and “not meeting expectations” — to talk with their teachers to see what kind of intervention might be necessary.

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While Boston and other urban systems saw a decline in scores, so did more affluent, suburban school districts, such as Newton and Winchester. On the eighth-grade math test, for instance, just 22 percent of students in Newton and 25 percent in Winchester exceeded expectations, compared to 47 percent and 39 percent who scored advanced three years ago, the Globe review found.

The dramatic drop in performance could cause schools to rethink the way they are teaching to make sure they are covering all the material students will be tested on.

The results could also prompt some schools to devote more time to test prep, especially if students need to build up their confidence and familiarity with taking tests on computers. About 60 percent of students in grades 3-8 took the MCAS online last spring, and the state wants all students to use computers within three years unless they have a learning disability that requires a paper-and-pencil test.

The revamped MCAS has been years in the making. Initially, the state explored the idea of teaming up with dozens of states to create a uniform online standardized testing system known as PARCC, which many Massachusetts schools tried in 2015 and 2016 instead of the MCAS.

But in the end, Massachusetts decided against adopting the PARCC and instead redesigned the MCAS.

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State officials said they anticipated some growing pains with the new test. For that reason, they have delayed a revamp of the 10th-grade MCAS exams, which students must pass in order to graduate.

Results from those tests, which will also be released Wednesday, paint a picture similar to the previous year. The English test results were flat, with 91 percent of 10th-graders scoring proficient and advanced last spring. The math and science scores for proficient and advanced nudged up one percentage point on each test to 79 percent and 74 percent respectively.

A new version of the 10th-grade MCAS is expected to premiere in 2019, which means students taking that test will have already taken the Next Generation MCAS in middle school.

State officials also decided against declaring any schools under-performing this year in the lower grades because of the new MCAS. And they held off on “under-performing” determinations for any high schools because they are planning to change the way they judge schools next year.

Acting Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson also said he was hesitant about declaring any additional high schools under-performing this year because most of those already on the list still struggle, and there are no clear strategies yet on how to help them.

In Boston, scores dropped across the board on the new MCAS. In English, scores ranged from a low of 29 percent of students in individual schools meeting or exceeding expectations in grades 3 and 4 to a high of 33 percent in grades 5, 7, and 8.

By contrast, in 2014 under the old MCAS, students scoring advanced and proficient in English ranged from a low of 31 percent in grade 4 to a high of 63 percent in grade 8.

In math, the difference in Boston scores were not as dramatic. Only about a quarter of students landed in the lowest category — “not meeting expectations” — which at most grade levels represented a smaller portion of students who scored in the warning/failing categories on the old MCAS in 2014.

Superintendent Tommy Chang cautioned against comparing results.

“One thing that is important for parents to know is this doesn’t mean your child is learning less,” Chang said. “We have higher expectations for young people [under the new test], and I think that is a good thing.”

“Our job now as educators is to work harder and smarter to make sure kids are meeting these new expectations,” he added.

Some education advocates and teacher unions have expressed growing concern that the new test will cause schools to step up their focus on standardized testing, much as they did when the MCAS was introduced in 1998, forcing many to scale back time on the arts, music, recess, field trips, and other areas not tied to the tests.

“We can guess a lot schools in low-income and immigrant communities will have negative results, and it’s going to be kind of demoralizing for students, parents, and teachers in those schools,” said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based advocacy organization critical of standardized testing.

She questioned whether the new test will be a better predictor of college success.

But Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said the new MCAS is long overdue.

“We know the bar needs to be aligned with real-world expectations and need to show that students will graduate ready for the next path in their life, whether that is in college or something else,” she said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.