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    MCAS scores suggest that tool is working

    Amid the current consternation over union contracts and the state of American schools, it’s nice to see good news in the realm of public education. And in Massachusetts, the most recent MCAS scores should bring cheer to both educators and parents. Released this week, the test results show that 88 percent of Massachusetts high school sophomores are proficient in English, a figure that bodes well for graduation rates and future employment. Over the past five years, the percentage of proficiency scores has risen in math and science, as well. Also heartening is the fact that the achievement gap, between suburban white students and minority students, appears to be shrinking — and that minority students’ test scores are rising as they progress through school.

    State officials attribute the gains to hard-fought education reform: Schools are now better able to identify the areas where students need the most help, they say, and to deploy resources more effectively. This was certainly the promise of the law. In some corners, MCAS is reviled as a one-size-fits-all benchmark that requires rote memorization and discourages creativity. But in an ideal world, an assessment test is just that: a way to measure challenges as well as progress, a tool that schools and teachers can use to find the kids who are falling behind, and help them succeed, instead.

    The MCAS scores don’t paint a fully sunny picture of student progress. They show disturbing declines in third-grade math and fifth-grade English scores, and a stagnation in third-grade English proficiency. It’s especially troubling that 39 percent of Massachusetts third graders are not proficient readers, since studies show that early literacy is a predictor of future success. In public education, there is clearly much work to be done. But the gains Massachusetts has made thus far suggest that early struggles don’t have to be permanent ones.