Once lauded as one of the best urban school systems in the country, the Boston schools are losing increasingly more ground on a leading national exam, according to results released Wednesday, offering a fresh round of evidence of the big challenges Superintendent Brenda Cassellius faces in improving classroom instruction.
Massachusetts as a whole, on the other hand, performed strongly again on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, popularly known as the Nation’s Report Card and mandated by Congress. The state was first in fourth-grade reading and tied for first in fourth-grade math, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math.
The results for Boston come as the state is conducting its first comprehensive review of the school system in a decade, a move that could result in mandates for changes from state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.
Here’s a breakdown of the Boston results:
The good years are in the rear view.
Boston schools are in a period of decline, by this measure. Scores have been eroding in recent years, reversing the largely steady increases the district enjoyed under previous superintendents Thomas Payzant and Carol R. Johnson.
On the Grade 4 math exam, scores hit a high-water mark in 2011 — with 237.24 points on a 500-point scale — and have dropped by nearly 4 points to 233.76 this year. On the Grade 8 math exam, scores peaked at 283.14 in 2013 and have slid more than 4 points to 278.77 this year.
On the Grade 4 reading exam, scores topped off at 219.46 points in 2015 and have tumbled by almost 6 points to 213.81 this year.
On the Grade 8 reading exam, scores reached a high of 261.44 in 2017 and have declined by almost 5 points this year to 256.98.
The decline has been unfolding as the Boston school system has been grappling with high turnover in leadership. Since Johnson retired six years ago, the district has had two interim superintendents and two permanent leaders.
Boston is failing its Latino students.
When it comes to the performance of Latino students on the national exam, Boston has some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation when compared to the scores of white students.
The gaps were the worst on the Grade 8 exams. In math, Boston had the second largest gap in the nation — 51 points — with Latino students scoring 264 points and whites 315. (Washington, D.C., had the widest gap.)
In reading, Boston had the fifth largest achievement gap between Latino and white students, 36 points.
The gaps were not that much better on the Grade 4 exams. Boston had the seventh widest gap in the nation in reading — 35 points — and the eighth largest gap in math, 30 points.
Boston is failing its black students, too.
Black students also had the toughest time on the math exams, particularly in Grade 8.
On that exam, Boston had the sixth-largest gap in achievement in the nation between black and white students — 52 points — with black students scoring 263 points compared to 315 for white students.
In Grade 4, Boston’s gap ranked eighth in the nation, with 35 points separating scores between black and white students.
Boston stacked up slightly better in the national rankings on the black-white achievement gap in reading, but the gaps were just as wide or wider than the ones for Latino students.
As with Latino students, the widest gap in reading appeared in Grade 4, 34 points, the twelfth-largest in the nation. In Grade 8, the gap was 32 points, the 14th-largest in the nation.
Where Boston ranks overall
The school system is still getting good mileage out of the Payzant and Johnson years, helping to buffer the recent declines.
The district had one notable improvement under former Superintendent Tommy Chang, who served between 2015 and 2018: a nearly four-point increase in eighth grade reading between 2015 and 2017.
Among the 27 large urban districts nationwide that took the exam, two significantly outperformed Boston in eighth-grade math, three did better than Boston in eighth-grade reading, and six surpassed Boston in fourth-grade reading and math, according to the data.
How did Boston respond?
It issued a press release entitled: “Boston Public Schools Maintains Long-Term Gains On Nation’s Report Card.”
While the system acknowledged scores mostly dropped between 2017 and 2019, the district focused instead on the overall gains the district has made since students first started taking the test in 2003 when Payzant was superintendent.
Over that time, math scores increased 14 points in Grade 4 and 17 points in Grade 8. In reading, scores grew by eight points in Grade 4 and five points in Grade 8.
“Boston Public Schools has shown tremendous progress over the past two decades, but these results underscore our need to continue to place an urgent focus on improving outcomes for all students,” Cassellius said in a statement.
“I am committed to removing the barriers that slow or prevent any student from achieving at the highest level.”
Boston won the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006, a highly-coveted award from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
The organization subsequently placed the program on hiatus five years ago due to “sluggish academic results” among urban districts nationwide, which left too few of them to qualify as finalists, according to an announcement at the time.