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MCAS scores plummet during the pandemic

The decline in MCAS scores mirrors a national trend in standardized tests.Adobestock/clsdesign - stock.adobe.com

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MCAS scores tumbled by hefty margins across Massachusetts over the past two years, according to results released Tuesday that offer the first measurements of how much students have struggled with learning during the pandemic.

Math scores took the biggest hit, dropping 16 percentage points for students in grades 3-8 and 7 percentage points for Grade 10 since the standardized tests were last administered in the spring of 2019. Achievement on the English/Language Arts exams was mixed. Scores decreased 6 percentage points in grades 3-8 compared to 2019, but they increased 3 points in Grade 10.


Gaps in performance among students of different backgrounds also remained wide and grew larger in many cases.

Last spring’s MCAS tests were the first to be given in two years, over the objections of many educators, parents, and students. State education leaders reactivated the tests at the direction of the federal government, after canceling them in spring 2020 because of the statewide lockdown, which forced an abrupt and bumpy shift to remote learning for more than a year.

Massachusetts education leaders have emphasized they won’t use the drop in test scores this year to punish schools for low performance and will not issue new school accountability ratings based on the results.

Rather, the intent is to gauge the extent of material students didn’t learn or how much they regressed, coming amid a period of tremendous emotional and economic upheaval in students’ lives, particularly those whose families were hit hard by the coronavirus. Many students were still learning from home when the tests were administered. Participation rates were about the same as previous years, with about 460,000 public school students taking the tests in school and at home.


“There are issues now in every district in Massachusetts,” Jeffrey Riley, the state’s education commissioner, told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, where the results were unveiled Tuesday. “Children that were doing well have been impacted by the virus and being out of school. Teachers can really use this information, working with administrators, to get a plan together on how to better move forward with kids so they get what they need.”

The decline in MCAS scores mirrors a national trend, with other states, from Virginia to Texas to Minnesota, experiencing significant drops this year in standardized test scores.

Overall on the MCAS, 46 percent of students in grades 3-8 met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English last spring and 33 percent did in math. On the Grade 10 tests, 64 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English and 52 percent scored that high in math.

One of the starkest achievement gaps in Massachusetts was seen on the Grade 3 English/Language Arts exam, on which 32 percent of Black students met or exceeded grade level expectations, down 6 percentage points from 2019. Only 28 percent of Latino students scored that high, down 10 points from two years ago.

By contrast, white students who met or exceeded expectations decreased by only 2 percentage points over the same time period, falling to 61 percent this year. Asian students remained the highest performers, with 67 percent meeting or exceeding expectations, but that was down from 72 percent in 2019.


Parents and guardians will receive their children’s individual MCAS scores after Sept. 30.

Many teachers, educators, parents, and students vehemently opposed giving the tests, arguing they were an unnecessary distraction and would provide little useful information. They noted that teachers and administrators already were monitoring the academic progress of students and knew which material they were struggling with and what lessons educators cut out of their curriculums during the turbulent year.

“This year’s test results, as they do every year, reflect our failure as a society to support students living in high-poverty districts; they’re not a reflection of our students’ true potential,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts.

In an effort to ease the burden of the tests, the state reduced nearly half the amount of material students in grades 3 through 8 were tested on, while still providing a large enough sample to determine where students stand. Tenth-graders were tested on all material because they have to pass MCAS to graduate.

Few districts appeared to evade the decline in scores. Revere’s math scores in grades 3-8 plummeted 26 percentage points; in Lynn, 24 points; and in Lawrence, 21 points, while well-to-do suburbs, such as Lynnfield, Milton, and Winchester, also experienced drops in in math in those grade levels by nearly 20 percentage points.

“We are not surprised by these results in Revere where students did not enter classrooms physically until March or April last year,” Superintendent Dianne Kelly said. “Our community was one of the hardest hit during COVID. Many, many families lost loved ones, endured extreme illness, and disproportionately faced the many social implications that COVID had on people in need like unemployment and food insecurity.”


Some of the state’s highly regarded charter schools experienced among the most dramatic declines in math in the lower grades, with Roxbury Prep dropping a whopping 42 points, KIPP Boston 36 points, and Boston Prep 35 points.

“Our schools have already begun the important work of using the data to assess the academic needs of every student and implement strategies to accelerate learning,” said Tim Nicolette, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

The districtwide declines in the Boston school system were less severe in some cases than the state, but still pushed its historically low scores even lower. In grades 3-8, just 31 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English and 20 percent did in math, representing a decline of 4 percentage points and 13 percentage points respectively.

In grade 10, 45 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English, the same rate as in 2019, while 38 percent of students scored that high in math, a 9 percentage point drop from 2019.

Many campuses, however, posted declines much larger than the district’s average.

“The results released today confirm what we all know — our kids struggled during this pandemic, and it will require an all-hands-on deck approach to ensure we do everything possible to get them caught up,” Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. “We will continue our investments in supporting our students’ health and well-being, as well as sharpening our focus on accelerating our students’ academic achievement.”


Boston schools are pursuing a number of interventions to boost student learning, such as contracting with an online vendor to provide 24/7 tutoring support that aligns with the school system’s curriculum and offering more opportunities for students to catch up academically during school vacations. The district also is deploying a full-time social worker and a full-time family liaison to every school in an effort to address student well-being.

How the drop in Massachusetts scores compares to other states is difficult to determine. Academic standards vary greatly across the country and each state designs its own assessments. But many states also have reported steeper declines in math than English.

Several national studies during the pandemic predicted math would be the subject causing students the most difficulty. It is a subject that requires building on top of a mastery of increasingly complex skills and it is an area that many parents feel uncomfortable with, making it challenging or impossible for them to help their children.

An analysis in July by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed the impact of the pandemic on student learning was significant and most severe in math, ”leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year.”

Massachusetts school districts will receive approximately $2.8 billion in state and federal pandemic relief money over the next three years to help put student learning back on track.

Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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