The 2023 MCAS results, released Tuesday, showed the lasting effects of pandemic school closures across the state — in large and small districts, rural and urban, wealthy and poor, almost without exception.
In Cambridge, school leaders were rejoicing: Their students’ scores had bounced right back to where they were before the pandemic, in just about every grade and subject. The district also beat the state average in every grade and subject, including among vulnerable groups, such as low income children and kids with disabilities.
Superintendent Victoria Greer pronounced herself “elated.”
“I hope this will help our educators see that their hard work is really paying off,” she said.
How did Cambridge do it?
There was no magic formula, district leaders insist; they used many of the same strategies other districts have tried — including intervention for students who need extra help, extra learning time over vacations, and teacher training to improve core instruction — and focused hard on executing them well. It’s not clear whether Cambridge did any of these things differently, or more intensively, than other districts did.
But the city’s experience does suggest money might have made a difference. The district is one of the top per-student spenders in the state. And it spent a greater share of its pandemic relief money on academics than many districts did; Cambridge spent $4.2 million of its $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds on academics, more than twice as much as the 20 percent, or $1.6 million, the law required.
And so, perhaps, does the still-not-satisfied attitude of its leaders. Even as they celebrated this week, they pointed to what is left to do: Many kids are still not meeting state expectations, particularly in math, and achievement gaps remain vast. In Grades 3 to 8 math, for example, 69 percent of white students met or exceeded expectations — nearly triple the percentage of Black students, at 24 percent. Some of the district’s schools performed much better than others.
“We are very hard on ourselves, because we will tell you all day long, even though our results look like this overall, we still have much much work to do,” said chief of academics Lendozia Edwards. “We want to ensure that every student is succeeding.”
But Cambridge’s success in catching kids up shows that it can be done. Massachusetts does not need to wait eight years for students to catch up, as the sluggish growth in this year’s statewide data would seem to suggest.
“The data tells the story,” said Edwards.
There are other bright spots: Many districts have recovered in high school English, and a few smaller districts are also back to pre-pandemic levels overall.
Cambridge, however, was one of just three districts with more than 5,000 students in which students in grades three to eight matched their districts’ scores from three years ago in either math or English. Its high school students have surpassed their 2019 predecessors in English by 5 points and are close in math.
Scores for some grades and subjects were better than others — middle school students remain further behind — but among large districts overall, only neighboring Arlington can boast such a strong recovery.
Many of the state’s other biggest per-pupil education spenders, deep-pocketed suburbs such as Weston, Watertown, and Brookline, remain substantially below their pre-pandemic standards. So does Boston, which spends more per kid than any other big city in the country. But none of those districts spend as much per student as Cambridge.
In Cambridge, the district has plowed money into: teacher training to ensure students in every grade and school are getting the same rigorous, grade-level material; programming during summer and other vacations; and computer software to assess students and provide them with personalized lessons for grades 3 to 8 in English and math. The learning software, i-Ready, was proposed by the district’s special education parents group, who felt it would support students with disabilities. Other districts have also used i-Ready, however, without the same success.
“People really wanted to ensure that all kids were making adequate progress, and this was one tool that we could provide to do that,” said Jennifer Amigone, the district’s director of research. “Parents have been very eager to do this.”
The district has held family engagement events so parents understand the resources available, and it’s made sure teachers at every school get the same training. It has also placed literacy and math coaches in every school to collaborate with educators on how to do their jobs as well as possible.
Leaders have also worked to make sure the investments they’ve made reach the students who need them most. The district worked to get i-Ready into the hands of families and after-school programs, even providing free internet, so that every kid could use it outside of school. And in the last two years, relief funds paid for extra staff in every elementary school to intervene with struggling students.
“You just have to use data to drive instruction and decision making,” said Edwards. “You have to peel the onion and you have to find out what the root causes are.”
The Cambridge teachers union agreed. Educators’ hard work, the union said, made the difference.
But, it warned, one of the most important components of the recovery may now be in jeopardy: a strong intervention system for struggling students.
The interventionists, highly trained educators who helped students in class or took them out of classrooms to work in small groups, were instrumental in getting students back up to speed, said Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Education Association.
The district last spring chose to cut some interventionist positions with the phase-out of federal pandemic relief money — this is the final year it can be spent — and start a “strategic tutoring” initiative, Monahan said. District leaders said they plan to start the tutoring program in November, but the outlines of the program are still being ironed out.
“I’m concerned about the future,” Monahan said. “We’ve shifted from the intervention model, which was clearly working, to this other model of strategic tutoring which may or may not work.”
Cambridge officials said Friday that the tutoring initiative is not replacing their school-based intervention program, as it remains in place despite the cuts.
The union also disagreed with the administration’s recent decision to change school schedules to allow for more time on math and English language arts and less time on lunch, recess, and transitions between classes.
“It raises the anxiety level for kids,” Monahan said. “They don’t have time to breathe.”
Teachers, who are currently working without a contract and are picketing before and after school amid their negotiations, are stressed as they contend with more frequent post-pandemic mental health crises among students and persistent staffing shortages, Monahan said.
“She’s taking a risk,” Monahan said of Greer’s decisions to cut the interventionists. “We’ll see how this plays out.”
David Weinstein, a Cambridge School Committee member, said the MCAS scores were only one measure of how students are doing in his city. Emotional and social health, he said, are important, too, and he worries about how students from disadvantaged groups are faring.
The district’s Black students are the furthest from their 2019 levels in Grades 3 to 8, noted Amigone. District staff is digesting the latest data and will take action in response, she said.
“That concerns us greatly,” Amigone said.
For Patricia Nolan, a city councilor and former School Committee member, the achievement gaps deserve more attention than the growth.
“The truly shocking news is the differences by school and by subgroup,” Nolan said in an email. “If we don’t name the issues, own the problems, and are not honest about the scale of the challenge, we won’t address it.”
Weinstein said the district must work to continue to close opportunity and achievement gaps between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“It’s really great to see the results of the work we’ve been doing — and we’re not satisfied.”
Mandy McLaren of the Globe staff contributed reporting.