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Fourth grade test scores sound a warning bell

The biennial release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores is usually an opportunity for Massachusetts to crow about its top-scoring performance by fourth- and eight-graders on “America’s report card.’’ Once again, Massachusetts students topped or tied for first place in both English and math for both grades. But a disturbing finding jumps off the page: In grade four reading, the average score for Massachusetts students fell by five points, one of just a few statistically significant declines seen across the nation on that test.

Overall, 47 percent of Massachusetts students scored proficient or above on the fourth grade reading exam, compared to the national average of 34 percent. But that is cold comfort for a state that is so thoroughly dependent on quality schools and a highly educated workforce. And the gap between white students and students of color remains dramatic. Only one-fifth of black and Hispanic students in Massachusetts scored well on the test, compared with 57 percent of white and Asian students. Black students in states not normally associated with high test scores, including Florida, outscored their Massachusetts counterparts.

“We’re getting no traction in grade four,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner for elementary and secondary education. The question, of course, is why? Chester suspects that the downturn in reading scores relates directly to the loss of elementary school reading specialists over the past few years. As school budgets tightened, he said, many schools required specialists to take on regular classroom duties. And traditionally, he said, schools are better at raising the math scores of students from impoverished families, as opposed to language skills that are profoundly influenced by a student’s home life.

What worries Chester most, however, is that he is starting to hear counterproductive grumbling from school superintendents. They are telling him that requirements to implement new teacher evaluations and incorporate the new Common Core standards are “too much, too soon.” But these are weak excuses. The new standards, for example, have been adopted by 45 states.


Similar complaints were heard a decade ago when the state implemented the high-stakes MCAS exit exam for high school students. Educators and students adapted admirably. With similar effort, they should reverse what Chester called the “alarming’’ drop in national assessment scores. It might be tempting for Massachusetts educators to ignore the results. After all, the state still ranks at the top for overall performance on the exams. But Massachusetts fourth graders need their attention.