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How much should we really worry about MCAS scores?

Education leaders from Harvard and Lesley universities level with us.

The Globe reported that local and state education leaders warn it could take half a decade for students to catch up to the academic levels their peers were at pre-COVID.Adobestock/clsdesign - stock.adobe.com

Spring MCAS results are out, and the headlines are predictably grim.

Less than half of elementary and middle school students statewide met or exceeded expectations on the 2022 English language arts MCAS, down more than 20 percent from pre-pandemic. Less than 40 percent of elementary and middle school students statewide met or exceeded expectations on the 2022 math MCAS, down 10 percentage points from pre-pandemic.

The Globe reported that local and state education leaders warn it could take half a decade for students to catch up to the academic levels their peers were at pre-COVID.

What are the true implications? How concerned should an average caregiver be? I spend more time refreshing the parent portal for my sixth-grader’s daily grades (and checking to see if he forgot to hand in his homework) than worrying about a pandemic-era MCAS mailing, but maybe I’m missing the bigger picture here.


I talked to two experts for candid (and, as it turns out, differing) opinions. Thomas Kane is the faculty director of Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research. CEPR just released The Education Recovery Scorecard, a nationwide deep dive into district-level learning loss with data on federal recovery dollars received per district. Professor Lisa Fiore is chair of the education department at Lesley University. Their responses touched on equality, the limitations of the traditional US school year, and the very purpose of learning.

Candid conversations for parents.GLOBE STAFF

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Lisa, I was at a party with friends the other weekend who had just gotten their kids’ MCAS results. People were saying: “The math scores are so bad! What’s going on?” What does this mean long-term for kids coming out of the pandemic era?

We can take a moment to breathe and recount the last several years where we’ve just had waves of fear — wave after wave of fear. So first: survival. School wasn’t even really front of mind for at least a month or so until we realized: [COVID] isn’t going anywhere. Then the fear shifted to: What do we do for kids? How will school happen? Will it be as good as face-to-face, regular school?


The deficit lens is always the prominent lens. We’re always worried about what we’re missing or what’s not happening. … When it comes to school, it’s a political game and has always been a political game. In America, it started out to train people to work in factories.

What? Really?

There are black-and-white videos of sad, wan kids, sitting in packed rows in the classroom, so that they could learn some fundamental knowledge. … The Industrial Era created this push to train children to sit, to be vessels, to listen, and to go off and be productive workers as we were shifting from an agricultural society to a more industrialized society. We grew up with a lot of these practices still in place: sitting in rows, mostly listening, and feeling like the person at the front of the room most often had the info we didn’t.

The scores are reflective of where we were in the No Child Left Behind era. … Some people refer to it as “No Child Left Untested.” There’s a lot of criticism about that time, because it became, again, such a fear-based period, where we had to just keep testing to make sure that our students were producing the outcomes that at least looked to us like they were learning and our country was shiny and competing well against other nations on assessments. But, frankly, we’ve never competed super-well on these assessments, ever. … Until we have equal resources, and equal access, it’s impossible.


And there’s an emotional piece for parents.

You have parents who care so much about their children, and all the hopes and dreams they embody. It’s really hard to separate the emotional stuff. I think most caregivers only want their children to be happy and successful. School is always the natural pathway to those dreams. And so, I think, a lot of the pressure lands in the schools.

But data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress says that we have lost decades of academic progress in elementary school math and reading. Is that scary to you?

I was thinking: What was our mental health like two decades ago? Were kids as stressed? I’m hearing people talk about mental health crises, and I’m curious. … If we could find an article that talked about children’s and youth mental health 20 years ago, would it be as dire as we feel it is today? And would people care as much? Because I think things were a little more joyful. I think children got to do more creative writing in classes. I don’t even know how long the MCAS has been going on, but I find students in college who struggle to write an essay that’s not in that five-paragraph essay format.


A very real feeling of frustration might exist, even if the scores may not matter in the scheme of things.

Students may not know that their test scores fall into a big, aggregated pool. I threw out my children’s MCAS scores every year. I’d throw them out because they had no bearing on their lives. And, I felt like if there was a problem in the classroom, the teacher would have said something to me. So I don’t care how they did on one day of their lives, taking a test.

Helping your children understand the tests and how they’re used, I think, is very helpful. No teacher is ever going to go back and say, “Kara got a 41 out of 62.” They’re really for the school’s internal reflection to think about how they can bolster their practice. A third-grader might not appreciate that as much as an eighth-grader would, but I think that’s important.

Another thing is that “learning loss” sounds like “lost” and gone forever, and never attainable or retrievable. And that’s also not the case; we can always repair and rebuild.

Still, it’s easy for parents to feel like, OK: My kid needs to get good grades, to get into honors classes, to get into college. Learning loss, in the context of college, is very real for many parents.

Thankfully, a lot of schools have started to reexamine the standardized tests that used to be regular, expected practice to get in the gates. Many schools have now made standardized testing optional, and some have backpedaled on that — we do live in a capitalist society.


If a child truly has their heart set on one of these elite, head-of-a-pin type of institutions, maybe that’s where you double down and focus on those very limited skill areas, like math, reading, or ELA kinds of things.

However, another tactic could be to think of something that makes a child stand out in a very different way. We know that a lot of these colleges receive applications that could be dime-a-dozen because everyone’s got the highest test scores. So, what sets students apart? Maybe they start doing something really special in their community. Maybe they start volunteering. What is it that could actually help round them out as a student in the fullest sense, that’s not just telling one quantitative side of a story? That’s where I would love people to start putting energy. Gosh, let’s help humans. Let’s help human connection.

Tom, are MCAS the most reliable measure of student achievement? Isn’t it just a snapshot in time?

Any state test is a limited measure, but as state tests go, I think the MCAS is a high-quality assessment. As an indicator to school leaders and to parents on where kids are, I do think it is a valid signal that kids are way behind where they typically would be at, in the spring of 2022.

The question that parents ought to be asking in parent-teacher meetings coming up is: “It’s November 2022. How does your lesson plan today compare to what your lesson plan was in November 2019? Just how far behind is my kid in terms of mastering grade-level content? And what can I do, as a parent, to help?”

Test scores come with all sorts of other baggage. People don’t like test scores being used for accountability, or people don’t like test scores being used in college admissions, or maybe test scores were used in a way that disadvantaged a parent in the past. The concept of a test score comes with all sorts of baggage, which complicates things.

And that’s why that snapshot, where you could see, if I look at, what are the specific skills where eighth-graders lost ground? Well, there’s 7 percent less kids who know they should be dividing rather than multiplying in a word problem. That’s a pretty big deal. I can think of lots of situations in life where they’re going to need to know when to divide and when to multiply. … This is not just about test scores, per se. This is about students being behind in terms of mastering the content for their grade level, and that will have long-term consequences.

There’s a school of thought that says testing is part of a big machine for SAT prep courses, et cetera, designed to rile up parents who can afford it while kids from less wealthy backgrounds fall farther behind. Is this contributing to a bigger problem?

The whole college admissions thing, and the use of test scores in college admissions, is a different problem than this. We shouldn’t get tangled up in that. This is about making sure that kids know important content at their grade level, because if they don’t know it, they’re not going to know it when they graduate from high school, and they can’t then major in the thing that they want to major in. Their job prospects will be diminished. … These are practical skills that are reflected on these tests.

But my sixth-grader gets graded every day. Would you argue that people who do poorly on MCAS are actually getting poor day-to-day grades?

I think that that’s part of the issue. Part of the challenge is that, I think, there are lots of teachers who are grading on a curve. They’re grading on the basis of effort. They’re grading in a way where they’re recognizing, accurately or legitimately, that grades can encourage or discourage kids. But, for all those reasons, grades are not good signals of students’ mastery of content.

What does this mean for parents? There’s the parent who has the wherewithal to be concerned. And then there are parents struggling to get through the day. What should we be pushing for?

The power in the data that we sent out last week [on the Education Recovery Scorecard] is that it was district by district. There are some districts like Lexington, Newton, Arlington, and Needham that saw relatively small declines. I do think it’s reasonable to expect that, just over the next couple of years, those districts will be back to 2019 levels without lot of extraordinary effort. But there are a lot of other districts like Fall River, Lynn, and Revere where there are very large losses, and it’s hard to imagine them getting back to their own 2019 levels without substantial increases in instructional time.

Parents should be advocating that their district spend federal money that the districts have received on expanding instructional time, whether that’s tutoring — a number of districts are trying to launch tutoring initiatives with varying success — or double-dose instruction, so increasing the number of minutes per day kids are getting in math and reading. Summer school. School vacation academies, which is something the state has been encouraging, basically using school vacations to help kids who are behind catch up. And, this is the least popular option, but honestly, I just can’t imagine some of these districts that saw more than a grade-level loss do without extending the school year in the next couple of years.

If you had to give this story a headline, what would you say?

Kids are behind in grade-level content. And they’re going to need additional instructional time.

Interviews were edited and condensed.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.