You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when the 2023 MCAS results reported student performance is no longer declining year over year in the wake of COVID-19. The feel-good spin should not distract us. Dig into the data, and it’s clear that students are struggling to regain lost ground after more than two years of interrupted learning and even with more than $2.5 billion in federal investments intended to pave the way for their academic recovery.
We see this statewide as too many of the Commonwealth’s more than 913,000 public school students continue to lag behind their prepandemic scores. It’s also troubling that many families are unaware how their child is doing compared to peers in their classrooms or across Massachusetts.
Overall, less than 50 percent of students in Grades 3-8 are meeting or exceeding expectations in English and math. Just 26 percent of Black children and 22 percent of Latino students are meeting or exceeding expectations in English, and 21 percent of Black students and 19 percent of Latino children are meeting or exceeding expectations in math.
In urban districts, the results are equally concerning. In Boston, only 29 percent of children in Grades 3-8 met or exceeded expectations in English and 26 percent in math. In Worcester, 27 percent of students are meeting or exceeding expectations in English and 24 percent in math. In Springfield, just 22 percent of children met or exceeded expectations in English and 16 percent in math.
As the Globe reported, at the current rate, it would take students about eight years to reach prepandemic MCAS levels. This trend isn’t owned solely by Massachusetts, but for the nation’s longtime leader in educational outcomes, this landscape is sobering.
Even historically high-performing exam schools stumbled. Prepandemic, in 2019, 82 percent of Boston Latin School Grade 7 students met or exceeded expectations in English and 93 percent in math. In 2023, three years after COVID-19 restrictions were initiated and one year after the city implemented its new exam schools enrollment policy, only 69 percent of seventh-graders are meeting or exceeding expectations in English and 70 percent in math. Boston Latin is not the only exam school to see decreases. At Boston Latin Academy and the O’Bryant School for Math and Science, the percentage of seventh-graders who scored meeting or exceeding expectations in 2023 decreased by a minimum of 30 percent in both English language arts and math for the same time period.
The current state of education should affirm that a common assessment measuring academic performance is an indispensable tool to ensure educational equity and apply consistent standards. Instead, the very notion of statewide standards is currently under attack in the form of proposed legislation (the so-called “Thrive Act”) and a ballot question — both sponsored by the Massachusetts Teachers Association — seeking to weaken the state’s long-standing accountability system. The ballot question would not only eliminate 10th-grade MCAS as a high school graduation requirement, but it would also require individual districts — more than 300 in all — to set their own graduation standards, as long as they do not include a standardized test, rendering a diploma from Lexington to mean something quite different than one from Leominster or Lawrence.
Many of us, from parents to education advocates, believe students deserve better than 300 variations of diplomas. If we’ve learned anything from the challenges students have faced, including a mental health crisis and ongoing chronic absenteeism, it’s that districts must use the historic investment of funds, through federal COVID relief programs and the state’s Student Opportunity Act, to embrace new models and tactics.
Evidence-based programs like high-impact tutoring, statewide use of proven literacy curricula, extended summer learning for all with enrichment, and longer school days could go a long way in helping students. The Globe’s recent article on seven big ideas articulates what’s happening elsewhere, but that hasn’t been brought to Massachusetts, which raises questions about a level of complacency and adherence to a status quo that was already leaving too many children behind.
State and district leaders need to focus their attention on where students are falling short. With more than nearly $1.2 billion still unused in federal COVID relief funds, as well as the Student Opportunity Act funding, school districts have significant resources for programs and services to aid recovery. But they have only until September 2024 to use the remaining COVID money.
When teachers and students returned to the classroom, it seemed as though state and local officials were satisfied that the COVID-19 crisis was over. Today, it’s clear the pandemic’s impact on children is long term, with one national study estimating it will take students an additional 4 to 5 months of learning time to recoup academic loss at the end of this school year.
At a time when so many students are not even meeting expectations, the notion of going backward on assessment and accountability — in an effort to ignore the academic crisis before us — is exactly the wrong way to go.
Mary Tamer is executive director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts, an education advocacy and policy organization, and a former member of the Boston School Committee.