This year’s MCAS scores are in, and the news is bleak.
Three years after Massachusetts shuttered its schools to contain the coronavirus pandemic, state testing data show children have not recovered academically.
Far from it: Most scores on last spring’s math, English, and science tests remained well below pre-pandemic levels, and in some cases did not budge at all.
At the rate of improvement seen from 2022 to 2023 — about 1 percentage point across all grade levels and subjects, on average — it would take eight more years for students to recover to their pre-pandemic achievement levels. The Massachusetts results echo national data released over the summer showing student progress stalled.
State education leaders tried to put a brave face on the results, lauding schools for managing, at least, to stop scores from getting worse. Last year, students performed significantly worse on the English tests than their peers in 2021.
“The 2023 ELA and mathematics MCAS results indicate that the achievement slide caused by the pandemic appears to have halted, and that recovery is fully underway,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Monday during a media briefing.
That was the best officials could muster in the face of overwhelming evidence that the recovery, in some areas, is barely happening.
The percentage of students in grades 3 to 8 meeting or exceeding expectations on the English language arts exam rose 1 point, to 42 percent, and rose 2 points in math, to 41 percent; those levels remain 10 and 8 percentage points down from 2019, respectively.
Grade 10 students are closer to their pre-pandemic levels in English — 58 percent met or exceeded expectations, just 3 points below 2019 levels — but did no better than 2022 test-takers. Grade 10 students also held steady in math, with 50 percent meeting or exceeding expectations, compared with 59 percent in 2019.
Gaps between white and Asian students and their Black and Latino peers remain vast, the results show; they shifted little between 2022 and 2023.
In science, achievement either fell slightly or held steady in the three grades tested, 5, 8, and 10.
But the wide chasm between most scores from before and after lockdowns and remote schooling testifies to the lasting effects of the chaos of the pandemic on children’s learning.
This year’s scores also raise questions about the efficacy and scale of the attempted response in Massachusetts and across the country.
Riley told reporters it remains to be seen whether the billions of dollars doled out to districts for academic recovery have paid off.
“Any gains are positive, but there’s a lot of work to do,” Riley said.
Massachusetts school districts were awarded $2.6 billion in federal relief funds, a little over half of which has been spent, according to state data. Twenty percent of money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the biggest source of funding, was required to go toward academic recovery. The state’s 2019 Student Opportunity Act, meant to be a game-changer for low-income districts, has also provided a major influx of funds to Massachusetts schools over the last two years.
Districts say they’ve made wise investments, pointing to spending on curriculum, vacation academies, summer school, and professional development. They’ve also tried to make a dent in chronic absenteeism, which has become a severe problem in the last three years; a quarter of students across the state now miss multiple days of school each month. State officials cited their “acceleration roadmap,” released in 2021, as an example of how they are helping districts.
But the state scores, following the “Nation’s Report Card” results last fall showing the Commonwealth’s students hitting 19-year lows on the tests, seem to demand new strategies.
“The state cannot let the recovery take eight more years,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.
“We know that if we wait too long, we’re going to lose a generation of students, and we should use every resource at our disposal and every ounce of urgency we can find,” Lambert said.
Much more attention needs to be focused on catching students up, said Thomas Kane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied the potential impact of pandemic learning loss.
“Many of the interventions that districts are implementing are having an impact, they’re just not anywhere near the scale that is necessary,” Kane said.
The state has to keep the pressure on recovery when federal money runs out next year, and start considering more radical steps, such as an additional year of high school or extending the school year or day, Kane said.
Popular investments like teacher training have been hamstrung by staffing shortages and cannot bridge the gap for students who have fallen far behind, said Barbara Malkas, superintendent of the rural North Adams school district, where student scores continued to fall this school year. She doesn’t have the staff to provide personal attention to all the struggling students who need it.
“If you have a kid reading two, three, four levels below grade level, that’s not going to get addressed even in a classroom with a teacher who is really good,” Malkas said.
When the 2022 MCAS scores were released last year, Riley said it could take up to five years before students fully catch up. His assessment raised troubling questions for high school students, who must pass the MCAS in order to graduate.
The 2023 scores, however, suggest Riley may have been too optimistic: Recovery will have to happen twice as fast if students are to catch up in just four more years.
Though achievement gaps remain stark, state officials highlighted one area where they closed slightly: The gap between Black and white 10th graders has closed by 6 points in English, as Black students scored slightly better than in 2019 while white students scored slightly worse.
Districts will send scores to parents in the coming weeks.
This year’s MCAS scores bring with them the full return of the state’s school accountability system, which uses MCAS scores and other measures, including graduation rates and chronic absenteeism, to determine what schools and districts will be targeted for support and intervention. In 2022, the state issued accountability reports, but did not measure progress. Last year’s scores were the baseline against which progress was gauged this year.
This year, the state assessed 275 schools — about 17 percent of public schools with sufficient data — as “requiring assistance or intervention,” up from about 14percent in 2019. Sixty-six schools were named “schools of recognition,” for strong performance or growth, including four each in Wellesley and Boston, and three each in Springfield and Newton.
But Tuesday’s data do not include whether any schools are exiting or entering “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming” status — which open schools up to the most extensive state intervention, including takeovers. Those evaluations will be made in coming weeks, the state said.
District-level results largely reflected statewide trends on the exams, with students in very few communities having rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
High school English scores were closest to pre-pandemic levels; third grade students are doing especially poorly in both math and English. In grades 3 to 8, just 16 districts saw students score as well on English tests as those grades did before the pandemic. At both grade ranges in math, a few dozen districts show a full recovery — out of several hundred statewide.
The state’s largest districts — Boston, Worcester, and Springfield — all remained mostly well below pre-pandemic levels, and improvements from 2022 were limited. In high school math, both Boston and Worcester reported slight declines from the prior year. And overall performance in those districts, which serve many high-needs students, was poor — on both math and English exams, in all three districts, fewer than a third of students in grades 3 to 8 met or exceeded expectations this year.
In a news release, Boston Public Schools noted that the state found the district to be making substantial progress toward targets, with strong results on reducing absenteeism, but Superintendent Mary Skipper said in a statement the MCAS is “a reminder of the work that needs to be done.”
Among larger districts, those serving the most low-income students were hit hardest by the pandemic, and have not seen a correspondingly large rebound, leaving their students further behind their wealthy peers than ever before. None of the state’s Gateway Cities have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in grades 3 to 8 or in high school math.
Among large districts, only Cambridge and a handful of others are at or near pre-pandemic achievement levels on every test, noted Kane.
“We’re elated to see these results,” Cambridge Superintendent Victoria Greer said. “This has really given us a lot of hope that we’re seeing the results of all of our hard work.”
Charter schools, on the other hand, remain some of the hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of test scores, particularly in math.
Tim Nicolette, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in a statement that “declines in student performance have slowed and in many cases halted or reversed” and pointed to strategies like extended learning time for math and English language arts.
“Recovery is beginning,” Nicolette said.
Niki Griswold of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of schools the state deemed in need of assistance or intervention in 2019, and should have clarified that the percentages for both this year and 2019 are out of all schools for which the state has sufficient data.