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Massachusetts students top national math and reading exams

The latest results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams contain mostly good news for students in Massachusetts and those in Boston, but also raise concerns about stagnation, according to results being released Tuesday.

Nearly 600,000 fourth- and sixth-graders took the reading and math exams in 2017 in all 50 states and 27 large school systems across the country. Boston was the only system in Massachusetts to take the tests, known commonly as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card, as an independent entity.

Here are some of the big takeaways:

Yes, Massachusetts is No. 1 (again)

Massachusetts as a whole outperformed every other state in reading and math in both the fourth and eighth grades.


Some 53 percent of fourth-graders and 50 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or higher in math, while 51 percent of fourth-graders and 49 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or higher in reading.

That should be a relief for the Baker administration, which just last week held a big State House event, “Leading the Nation,” to celebrate Massachusetts’ long track record of educational success. Governor Charlie Baker said he was proud of the latest NAEP results.

“I am pleased to see our students, teachers and schools scoring high marks once again, including record scores for Hispanics and black students,” Baker said in a prepared statement. “Our administration is committed to delivering a quality education to every student in every ZIP code, and we will continue to strive for excellence to make our state the best place to learn and grow.”

Mixed results for Boston

Eighth-graders rocked the exams. Some 33 percent scored proficient or higher in math, 6 percentage points higher than the average for large school districts. Only three districts outperformed Boston: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Austin, and San Diego.

Similarly, 32 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or higher in reading, five percentage points higher than the large district average. Just three districts scored higher: Austin, San Diego, and Hillsborough County in Florida.


But fourth-graders struggled to distinguish themselves. In math, 31 percent scored proficient or higher — tying with the average for large school systems — and in reading, 29 percent scored proficient or higher, just one percentage point higher than the large system average.

“As an urban district, we need to continue pressing on things we know that work — higher standards, effective professional development, and strong curriculum — and how we are supporting our most marginalized students,” said Superintendent Tommy Chang in an interview. “We are not going to see a shift in our scores unless we are addressing our lowest performing students.”

The warning flags

Statistically speaking, there were no significant changes in scores for the nation, Massachusetts, and Boston except in eighth-grade reading. (The analysis is based on actual scores rather than the percentage of students rated proficient or higher.)

The nation’s score in eighth-grade reading went up 2 points to 267 from 2015, just clearing the statistical bar to be deemed significant. On the other tests, scores either increased just one point or were flat.

In Massachusetts, scores rose by 3 points from 2015. The Bay State was among 10 states to improve notably on that test. By contrast on the fourth-grade reading exam, not a single state secured higher score, as results were either stagnant or declined.

And Boston was among just two districts that saw a notable increase in scores, rising 4 points from 2015 — just like Albuquerque.


Achievement gaps

The gaps between students of different backgrounds — long a sore spot for state policymakers and civil rights advocates — persist.

For instance, on the reading tests, 64 percent of Massachusetts’ fourth-graders who are Asian scored proficient or higher, and 60 percent of white fourth-graders did. By contrast, 29 percent of black and Latino fourth-graders scored at that level.

In Boston, school officials expressed concern about declining performance of black students on both the fourth- and eighth-grade tests, including a five-point decline on the grade four reading test since 2015.

James Peyser, state education secretary, said the achievement gaps show that Massachusetts needs to “redouble our efforts on educational policy and education reform” and sees promise in some recent initiatives, such as bolstering the quality of early education and developing a new system to hold schools accountable for student performance.

“We need to do better,” he said. “We can’t afford to stay in place, even though we are at the top of the ratings.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.