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Latest MCAS results show uneven academic recovery statewide

Hand completing a multiple choice exam. (Getty Images stock photo)
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Exam is administered every year in grades 3 to 8 and grade 10, but testing was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic.

After a pandemic plunge, results released Thursday from the state’s standardized tests from spring 2022 show a slow and mixed recovery.

Those results, based on tests conducted last school year, show that across all grades and districts in Massachusetts, scores in math and science have at least stopped falling. But the same is not true for the English and language arts section.

In addition, student attendance continued to slide last year: as the state moves to recover from pandemic-related learning loss, the average Massachusetts student missed 15 days of school last year versus 11 days in 2020-21.

At a press conference previewing the results Wednesday, Jeff Riley, the state’s K-12 education commissioner, noted small upticks in average scores on the test’s math and science sections for grades 3 through 8. But tenth graders saw a modest continued decline in math scores.

“We may be seeing some early signs of learning recovery, but we’ve always said we think it’s going to take some time” to regain pre-pandemic levels of achievement, Riley said — around three to five years, he estimated.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Exam is administered every year in grades 3 to 8 and grade 10, but testing was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Officials worry about widespread, chronic absenteeism, including 1.7 million total days of learning lost in the state due to positive COVID tests in the 2021-22 school year. Meanwhile, some critics of the exam, known as the MCAS, say challenges of the pandemic should cast doubt on the usefulness of standardized tests at the moment.

On the English and language arts section, only 41% of students in grades 3 through 8 achieved a score of “meeting” or “exceeding” expectations — down five points from the prior year's tests.

Riley noted the slippage was due in large part to a marked decline in scores for student writing, which were down, on average, by 18% since 2019. While most of the results are in keeping with a national downturn in test scores, Riley said the state's writing-intensive test may provide a unique window on how that skill has suffered.

As to root causes for underperformance, Riley and his team pointed to last year’s record-breaking levels of absenteeism in the state’s public schools: nearly a third of all students missed 18 or more days in what associate education commissioner Rob Curtin called “an incredible amount of instructional loss.”

Riley said that, under those conditions, writing — “a process that you get better at by working closely with your teacher" — would naturally suffer.

School districts and advocates react to scores

The less-than-reassuring outcome from the 2022 MCAS test caused mixed reaction from education leaders around the state.

Local signs of incremental progress were "not surprising at all" to Jonathan Guzman, vice chair of the Lawrence School Committee. “We’re able to increase [scores], little by little, but we still see other areas that are lacking ... you can't jump for joy.”

Meanwhile, some advocates questioned the validity of the results altogether under challenging circumstances.

“A standardized test should be delivered under standardized conditions,” said Lisa Guisbond, head of the nonprofit Citizens for Public Schools, who has argued for an ongoing moratorium on testing. “What we've had these past few pandemic years is anything but.” 

Unlike with other years, state officials will not use the 2022 MCAS results to tighten oversight over underperforming schools or districts, Riley said. Instead, these scores will be used as the new “baseline” results against which further progress — or more backsliding — will be measured.

The state uses its MCAS in grade 10 as a graduation requirement and voted this summer to make passing that test more difficult. That new threshold goes into effect in 2024.

State officials said they would help districts implement new interventions aimed at improving student writing as well as continue to offer "high-dosage" tutoring and summer academic programs.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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