Dramatically fewer Massachusetts 10th-graders scored in the highest categories on the revamped MCAS exams last spring, a sign the new tests are far more rigorous than the ones they replaced, according to results released Tuesday.
On the English exam, just 61 percent of 10th-graders met or exceeded expectations, while in math, 59 percent of test-takers landed in those two categories. By comparison, 91 percent of 10th-graders in 2018 scored proficient or advanced on the old English MCAS and 78 percent of test-takers scored that high on the old math test.
Like with the old MCAS, students must pass the new MCAS exam to graduate. But the more rigorous exam didn’t appear to hamper students’ chances of receiving their diplomas. That’s because state officials, anticipating schools would need time to adjust programs to reflect the tests’ more difficult content, set a low bar for passing.
The result: The percentage of students who passed all three tests — English, math, and science — was the same as last year, 87 percent. The bar was set so low that some students who scored in the upper range of “not meeting expectations” passed the test. (The science exams have not been overhauled yet.)
“We are giving folks breathing room,” said Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams have been administered each year to more than a half-million students in grades 3 through 8 and 10 for over two decades. In recent years, the state has been moving the exams online and has constructed questions that aim to have students think more deeply — requiring them to not only know the answers but in many instances to explain how they arrived at them.
In setting the passing score on the 10th-grade exams, state officials analyzed what students had to know to pass the old MCAS — requiring at least a score “in need of improvement,” the second-lowest performance category — and then examined where that level of knowledge fell on the new tests. It ended up being in the upper range of “not meeting expectations,” the lowest performance category.
The lower bar will be in effect for at least two years, and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will consider a request Tuesday to keep it there for a third year. Eventually, the state wants to raise the bar so it reflects what students actually need to know to do well in college.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has long opposed using MCAS for high-stakes decision-making, said her organization asked the state for a three-year moratorium on the graduation requirement and to instead create a grant program that would allow educators to develop “more meaningful ways to assess student learning” rather than relying on standardized tests.
“Educators know how children are doing,” she said. “We know who is ready for new material, who needs more time, and who is on target. The fundamental thing we need to go back to is trusting educators to do what’s best for children.”
It remains unclear how long it will take high schools to boost their scores to the rate they were achieving under the old MCAS. But if scores in the lower grades, which began using the new MCAS in 2017, are any indication, it could be a long journey.
Overall scores on the English and math MCAS exams in grades 3 through 8 combined increased by only 1 percentage point this year compared to last year. Just 52 percent of students in those grades met or exceeded expectations in English, and only 49 percent did in math.
But there were two notable exceptions. The portion of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations jumped by 4 percentage points to 56 percent. And the portion of sixth-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in math also climbed 4 percentage points to 51 percent.
Gaps in performance among students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds also persisted in grades 3 through 8. On the English exams, they actually widened; and on the math tests, they were either stagnant or increased slightly, depending on the groups being compared.
For a third year in a row, state officials declined to designate any additional schools as underperforming, while removing that designation from two schools, Channing Elementary in Hyde Park and Duggan Academy in Springfield. There are now 26 state-designated underperforming or chronically underperforming schools, down from 37 in 2016.
While state law allows up to 4 percent of schools statewide to be designated as underperforming or chronically underperforming at one time, just 2 percent currently are.
But Riley indicated in a phone call with reporters on Monday that he may take action later this school year, noting that his department will be conducting its first comprehensive review of the Boston school system in a decade. The review, which begins with classroom observations next month, is expected to be completed in early 2020 and Riley said he could make determinations at that time.
Many of the 199 schools in the state requiring targeted or broad-based interventions are located in Boston. On Tuesday, the number for Boston stood at 42 schools, down from 50 last school year. The decrease was not due to improvement at the schools, but because the state loosened some MCAS student-participation rules.
Boston school officials, in announcing their MCAS results, kept the focus on the positive, including two schools that received commendations from the state for strong performance: the Hale Elementary School in Roxbury and Winship Elementary in Brighton.
But districtwide scores were low. Like the state, overall MCAS scores for grades 3 through 8 combined climbed 1 percentage point, with 35 percent of test-takers meeting or exceeding standards in English and 33 percent landing in those two categories in math.
On the new Grade 10 MCAS, 45 percent of test-takers in Boston met or exceeded expectations in English and 47 percent did in math — well below the state averages.
“While we celebrate the schools making progress today, we must urgently focus our efforts on supporting those in need of more intensive support and attention,” said Brenda Cassellius, Boston schools superintendent, in a statement. “We need nothing short of high-quality learning environments where children are learning and thriving in every classroom.”
This year’s MCAS has been enmeshed in controversy. The state tossed out an essay question related to Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, “The Underground Railroad,” after several educators and students complained that the question was racist. Students were asked to write from the perspective of a character who used derogatory language against a runaway slave.
Out of an abundance of caution, Riley waived the passing score for any student who was on track to pass the English test but faltered after encountering the question.
Jamie Gass of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Boston, questioned whether the new MCAS was more rigorous. Pioneer has long argued that Massachusetts took a step backward when it decided almost a decade ago to weave a set of national standards for the teaching of English and math into its state academic standards, on which the MCAS exams are based.
The new MCAS, he said, “continues to water down academic expectations for our students.”
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.