The disruptions caused by the pandemic continue to exact a toll among schoolchildren in Massachusetts, with more students failing to meet statewide requirements for reading and writing on the MCAS exams, according to results released Thursday.
The percentage of Grade 10 students meeting or exceeding expectations for English language arts fell 6 points, to 58 percent in 2022, and 5 points, to 41 percent, for students in grades 3 to 8. However, the results for math and science exams offered encouraging signs of a rebound: on math, the number of students in the lower grades meeting or exceeding expectations rose 6 points, to 39 percent, and rose by 1 point in science exams, to 43 percent for grade 5 and 42 percent for grade 8.
But all of the results were below test scores from before the pandemic.
The scores offer one of the first measurements of how much students have recovered after a lengthy period of remote learning that led to an even larger drop in MCAS performance in 2021. They also underscore evidence from around the country that the pandemic erased years of educational progress and widened existing achievement gaps among high needs students.
MCAS scores for schools across the state
“When we compare these results to pre-pandemic levels, we still have a way to go across all subject areas to fully recover all those learning losses,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Wednesday during a media briefing.
Riley said it could take up to five years before students fully catch up, which raised troubling implications for older students especially: High school students need to at least partially meet expectations in order to graduate.
The 2022 MCAS exams were given in the spring, near the end of the first fully in-person school year since the pandemic began, and included the full complement of tests, unlike 2021 when abbreviated versions of the tests were administered to just students in grades 3 through 8. State education leaders canceled the spring 2020 tests because of the statewide lockdown, which forced an abrupt and bumpy shift to remote learning for more than a year.
This year’s MCAS scores bring with them a return of accountability reports for individual school districts, based on MCAS scores and other measures including graduation rates and chronic absenteeism. But for now, state officials said they do not plan to issue determinations that struggling districts or schools need assistance or intervention, or to measure progress toward targets. Instead, state education leaders said, the new data released Thursday will represent a new baseline for future targets.
The low MCAS scores jibe with recently released data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” which showed startling declines in elementary school math and reading scores, demonstrating students have lost decades of academic progress. Math scores on the NAEP exams declined for the first time ever while reading scores fell the most in 30 years on the tests, which were given to 9-year-olds in early 2020 and 2022.
Other states that have released results for 2022 tests also report achievement levels below pre-pandemic levels, but the picture varies state to state.
In Massachusetts, achievement gaps on the spring MCAS remain stark: On the grades 3 to 8 English exams, only about one-quarter of Black students and about 1 in 5 Latino students met or exceeded expectations, while nearly half of white students did. All three cohorts scored worse than in 2019.
But the MCAS report included some promising signs for closing gaps. For example, Black and Latino 10th-grade students performed slightly better on English than in 2019 — around 40 percent met or exceeded expectations in 2022. Sixty-five percent of white students met or exceeded expectations in the 2022 English exam, down 4 points from pre-pandemic levels.
Asian students remained the highest performers, with 63 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 and 79 percent of students in 10th grade meeting or exceeding expectations on the English exam.
Districts will send scores to parents in the coming weeks.
Most districts reported similar trends to the state as a whole, with continuing declines on English paired with modest recoveries in some other subjects. Just 20 districts had improvements in their grades 3 to 8 English performance, compared to more than 200 for math. Even districts with the highest-performing students, such as Weston, Wellesley, and Brookline, continued to see declines in grades 3 to 8 English, as did the districts that the state has taken over due to low performance — Holyoke, Southbridge, and Lawrence.
Some of the state’s highly regarded charter schools remain far below their pre-pandemic scores. The percentage of students at Roxbury Prep, KIPP Boston, and Boston Prep, for example, who met or exceeded expectations on math exams remains more than 20 points below pre-pandemic levels.
The trajectory of Boston Public Schools students on the exams was better than the state average, with smaller declines in scores for English among grades 3 to 8, and small improvements on math, science, and Grade 10 English.
In third to eighth grades, fewer than one-third of Boston public school students met or exceeded expectations in English, and only about 25 percent did so in math, both below the low levels recorded in 2021.
In Grade 10, 47 percent of Boston students met or exceeded expectations in English, up 2 percentage points from both 2021 and 2019, while 41 percent of students hit that mark in math, a 3-point increase from 2021, but 6 points below 2019 results.
Both state and city officials pointed to a lack of early literacy and writing proficiency, as well as chronic absenteeism as particularly pressing concerns. Statewide, English scores in grades 3 to 5 fell more than for grades 6 to 8, while essay scores on the English exams for grades 3 through 8 fell nearly 20 percent. Chronic absenteeism surged, with the number of students missing 10 percent of the school year more than doubling.
“Writing is something that hasn’t been picked up nationally,” Riley said. “Most states don’t incorporate this degree of writing into their state assessments, so we might be the canary in the coal mine.”
The Massachusetts education board recently approved a new twice-a-year literacy screening mandate for students in kindergarten through third grades, while officials in Boston said the district will have to “double down” on its equitable literacy strategy.
Linda Chen, Boston’s senior deputy superintendent of academics, said the district is focusing on providing students access to engaging texts on grade level standards.
BPS leaders said the district had some bright spots relative to other urban districts, particularly among high-needs groups such as English learners and students with disabilities, but said the focus has to remain on closing gaps.
“We need to hold true to equitable outcomes for all our students, and particularly focus on the students who are marginalized populations,” Superintendent Mary Skipper said. “We don’t want to take our eyes off that.”
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.