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Massachusetts students hit 19-year low on national reading, math exams

State no longer at top of class in 4th grade math, 8th grade reading

Caroline Horn tutored a student at the nonprofit 826 Boston during an after-school program.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Disrupted learning during the pandemic brought student achievement among students in Boston and statewide to the lowest levels in a decade or more, according to new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

The math and reading test is considered the gold standard of student assessments and has been administered nationwide to a representative sample of 4th- and 8th-grade students since the 1990s. Scores for Massachusetts students have been declining since at least 2017, but the drop between 2019 and 2022 has been attributed to the COVID pandemic. Taken together, the years of declines are alarming.

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Karen Sama, a program director at 826 Boston, instructed tutors before the students arrived for their after-school program.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The data, made public Monday, add to the accumulating evidence that the pandemic and associated school closures exacted a steep toll on the nation’s students. The latest scores also show that the starkest declines in student achievement in Massachusetts and elsewhere occurred among students with disadvantages.

“The results in today’s Nation’s Report Card are appalling and unacceptable,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said of the national results. “A once-in-a-generation virus upended our country in so many ways, and our students cannot be the ones who sacrifice most in the long run.”

Massachusetts scores hit their lowest point since 2003 or earlier in all four tests, while Boston scores hit their lowest point since 2011 or earlier in all four tests. The state also lost its top spot in two of the four tests: In 4th-grade math, Massachusetts public school students scored second, behind Wyoming; in 8th-grade reading, the state was second to New Jersey. In 2019, the state was the highest scoring in all four tests.

When Massachusetts scores are averaged across all four tests, the state continues to rank first in the nation overall, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said.

“While students continue to perform well compared to other states, we know that the impacts of the pandemic continue to present challenges,” said Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement. “Our administration has made significant investments to help bridge learning gaps from the pandemic, and we remain committed to making sure every student can succeed.”

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“Scores are down substantially and they’re down in virtually all states and in the large school districts that participate in NAEP,” said Martin West, academic dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the governing board that sets NAEP policy.

State educational leaders, as well as leaders in Boston Public Schools, have predicted that it could take five years or longer for students to recover from lost learning during the pandemic. Staggering drops in scores among Black and Latino students, low-income students, and English learners exacerbated existing achievement gaps.

“It gives us our clearest picture yet of the COVID-19 pandemic impact on the academic achievement and the well-being of our students, our teachers, and our schools,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administers the exam. “The pandemic also laid bare an opportunity gap that has long existed.”

Like a poll, the NAEP is administered to a sample of students. Roughly 450,000 students at 10,000 schools were assessed nationwide.

In Boston, most student groups performed worse than in 2019. But students who are Black, Latino, low-income, or learning English had even steeper declines on the Grade 4 math test. Low-income students and English learners also had greater drops than their peers in Grade 8 math.

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None of the subgroups recorded statistically significant changes in reading since 2019, but gaps have widened notably since 2017. There were some bright spots, particularly for students with disabilities, for whom gaps narrowed at both grade levels in the math assessment.

BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper acknowledged that for years gaps have been widening between students who are Black and Latino, have disabilities, or are learning English and their peers.

“We have to acknowledge what the data is showing us, call it out, and be extremely intentional about ensuring our Black and brown students are receiving the supports that they need,” Skipper said, adding that the district must bolster interventions for both math and reading. “There is a deep sense of urgency around this work, and we’ll be working to identify and remove the barriers our Black and brown students continue to face. We have to get this right and address these gaps.”

Statewide, 8th-grade reading scores fell to their lowest level on record, tying 1998. On all four tests, the state’s scores peaked in 2017 or earlier. Some of the declines, such as the BPS reading scores, were not statistically significant from 2017 to 2019 or 2019 to 2022, but combined they are statistically significant. State efforts to understand and address the decline in 2019 were hampered by the pandemic, said Massachusetts state Representative Alice Peisch, who chairs the Legislature’s joint committee on education and also sits on the National Assessment Governing Board.

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Experts believe catching students up will require years-long intensive interventions for which there is no precedent. If schools don’t act with urgency, experts warn, students will be not be prepared for post-secondary education and the workforce.

“We’ve never seen such a sharp decline in achievement over such a short period of time,” West said, “and so, therefore, we don’t have past experience to draw upon.”

Aaron Gross tutors a student at the nonprofit 826 Boston during an after-school program. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

While there is no easy answer for combating learning loss, researchers have touted “high-dosage tutoring” — one-on-one or small-group instruction multiple times per week for at least half an hour — as a leading strategy.

“Existing research on the efficacy of high-dosage tutoring is among the most compelling evidence I have seen for what works in education,” said Matthew Kraft, an education and economics professor at Brown University.

The challenge facing schools, Kraft said, is the considerable expense of implementing high-quality tutoring programs at scale. Research shows tutoring is most effective when it’s integrated within the school day and taught by certified teachers. But the nation is already grappling with a critical teacher shortage. Although school districts have received an influx of federal relief funds over the past two years, many have been slow to put that money to work.

“I think districts are understandably hesitant to invest in major structural changes in how they organize the school day and how they invest in school personnel for fear these major changes won’t be able to be sustained,” Kraft said. “That aid is going to run out.”

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Peisch said lawmakers are working to provide additional guidance on effectively spending federal funds, as well as money from the state’s Student Opportunity Act, which is aimed at closing achievement gaps.

“There’s no magic wand we can wave,” she said. “It’s going to require a lot of hard work by everyone.”

Ashton Armand, a 15-year-old freshman from Hyde Park, can attest to the value of tutoring. For 90 minutes three days a week after school, Armand goes to 826 Boston, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Roxbury, where he gets extra help on his homework. Armand last week transferred from Another Course to College, a BPS high school, to Wellesley High School through Metco. He says his tutors help make clear things he may not fully understand in class.

On Thursday, Armand worked on his geometry homework with Boston College junior Lilly Adler. They sat hunched over a piece of notebook paper at a table in the back of the room, isolating “y” in a math equation.

“Our goal is to get ‘y’ by itself,” Adler, 20, explained.

He studied the numbers and variables intently.

“I think I’m ready to try it out,” he announced.

Then Armand picked up his pink eraser, leaned over his worksheet, and worked on tackling the problem himself.

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. Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan.