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New MCAS data underscore missed learning of the pandemic. What if kids can’t catch up?

Educators at the Rafael Hernández Dual Language K-8 School work with students on early literacy screenings, a critical step in assessing whether students are behind in reading and writing.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

In the wake of discouraging recently released MCAS results, experts say educators must take more aggressive measures to make up for learning missed during the heart of the pandemic.

Local and state education leaders warn it could take as long as half a decade to catch students up to the academic levels their peers were at prior to COVID’s onset in 2020 but point to interventions already in place to close those gaps: tutoring, reducing chronic absenteeism, and focusing on early literacy.

But the interventions the state and districts are making may not match up to the scale of the need, experts said, leaving the most vulnerable students at risk of never fully catching up. With the MCAS results reinforcing prior data indicating many students are more than half a school year behind in math and reading, the state and districts risk moving too slowly to make up that time, they say. The effects may not only leave students vulnerable to failing to graduate, but also unprepared for college or joining the workforce. In a state with looming workforce shortages, it could also hamper economic development — and leave marginalized students out of opportunities in growing fields like technology and life sciences.

The spring test scores show some signs of progress, with partial rebounds from pandemic lows in math and science scores, but those bright spots were tempered by continued declines in reading and writing performance, and all subjects show students performed worse than the same grades did pre-pandemic. Statewide, the fraction of third- to eighth-grade students scoring at grade level is down more than one-fifth from the pre-pandemic level in both math and English language arts.


MCAS scores for schools across the state

These losses were already clear from other data. The recently released National Assessment for Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” showed startling declines — decades of academic progress lost — in elementary school math and reading scores.


For students in high poverty schools that stayed remote most of the 2020-21 school year, the losses could amount to as much as 22 weeks of lost learning, according to Thomas Kane, the faculty director of Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, who examined testing data for over 2 million students nationwide.

Districts have identified the right sort of interventions, Kane said, like tutoring and acceleration academies. But they would have to dramatically increase those efforts — extending the school year or offering tutoring three times a week for a full school year, which generates about 19 weeks of learning — to get students back on track.

“In some of these districts, the average student has lost the equivalent of 19 weeks,” Kane said. “If that’s true, we’re not going to get there by offering tutoring to 10 percent of students. It would be all students who need that sort of intervention.”

Kane called for quick action, in part because the state’s billions of emergency federal relief funds — which were still mostly unspent at the end of the last school year — must be spent by September 2024. Districts can’t wait until next year, when students may again post low test scores, to tap those funds to use for increased interventions, he said.

Ed Lambert, director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, noted that some of the lost learning becomes harder to address the more time passes.


“A lot of our students don’t have five years to wait,” he said.

A failure to act could have severe impacts on both students’ future career outcomes and on the Massachusetts workforce, he said.

“When you couple the decline in scores with what appears to be an even greater talent pipeline need ... the combination of those things would really seem to hinder and obstruct Massachusetts’ competitive position,” Lambert said. “Worse are the growing inequities. It’s one thing to have talent, but if large parts of the student population are left out of the equation, we’re not a healthy Commonwealth.”

At the classroom and school level, assessments like the Measure of Academic Progress, tests typically administered at the beginning, middle and end of the school year, give educators more up-to-date information on their students, said Stephen Sireci, a professor who studies testing at UMass Amherst. The MCAS data may come too late to be much use at all, he noted.

“Getting your child’s results in October for how they did in an academic year that ended in June isn’t particularly helpful, because there might’ve been something you could do in the summer,” Sireci said. “Why not look at how our students are doing now?”

Chronic absenteeism surged over the last two school years, pressing district and state leaders to address the problem as well as drill down on the hours of missed instruction.

“Four out of 10 [Boston] students missed on average 18 or more days,” Boston Superintendent Mary Skipper said. “That’s nearly a month of school. To let alone try to gain traction post-pandemic in what they missed, but then also try to accelerate that learning so that we can close those gaps, that’s where it becomes really difficult for the students and for educators.”


Some experts, including critics of high-stakes testing, warned against overreacting to the MCAS scores, although they agreed that there are ways to smartly use the federal relief funds, like summer programs, to help students recover in a holistic sense from the pandemic.

“Of course learning wasn’t happening in the way that it was before,” said University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Jack Schneider, who leads the Beyond Test Scores Project. “The fact that they were even remotely in the ballpark is a testament to young people and to educators and to school leaders.”

Ahead of the recent score release, state leaders highlighted narrowing gaps between white students and Black and Latino students on the high school English exam. But the achievement gap picture was mixed, with widening or unchanged gaps for those students in math and similarly ambiguous results for English learners and students with disabilities. Most of the shifts were a few percentage points at most.

For John Mudd, a longtime Boston Public Schools watchdog who sits on the district’s English Learner task force, those inequities are the other area that needs more attention.

“The latest report shows that the gaps remain huge,” Mudd said. “What are you doing about it? That’s the fundamental question.”


Mudd called on Boston to consistently lay out how its plans will not just improve student performance, but close achievement gaps.

“In order to reduce opportunity and achievement gaps, you have to do the analysis that shows why each marginalized group will improve faster than the comparison group,” Mudd said. “I have never seen that.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.