After a steep pandemic-fueled drop in scores, Massachusetts education officials say the latest results on the state’s standardized tests offer hope of a recovery.
Results from the spring 2023 MCAS exams show that across the state, students’ scores are either flat or slowly climbing.
The percent of students in grades 3 through 8 whose scores "met or exceeded expectations" in mathematics, for instance, rose by two percentage points since 2022, while performance in English Language Arts rose by one percentage point in that same period.
Performance among tenth graders didn't change on any section of the test since 2022. In 2023, 50% and 58% of sophomores "met or exceeded expectations" in math and ELA, respectively.
During a conference call with reporters Monday, state education commissioner Jeff Riley said “the achievement slide caused by the pandemic has halted.”
But Riley and his team are not celebrating yet. While scores have stopped falling, there’s still a “lot of ground to make up” before they regain pre-pandemic levels, said Rob Curtin, head of assessment and accountability at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“We certainly view the results today as positive momentum towards our recovery, coming out of the pandemic,” Curtin said at Tuesday's presentation to the board. But he cautioned, for example, that the youngest children who were “most impacted” by COVID-related disruptions are “now going to be coming into … the testing window.”
Since the redesign of the test in 2017, the state has labeled top MCAS scores as either “meeting” or “exceeding expectations.” The percentage of test-takers who fall into one of those two categories is a useful metric for the number of students the state sees as academically “on track.”
The MCAS tests math, reading and writing ability, and science skills across four content areas. It’s required of students in public and charter schools in grades 3 to 8, as well as in tenth grade.
Since it was first administered in 1998, the assessments have been Massachusetts’ principal standardized window into learning progress — and learning loss — inside the state’s publicly-funded schools.
And since 2021, the test has painted a worrying statewide picture of the effects of the pandemic as it disrupted learning.
For example, among all students in grades 3 through 8, the share of scores on the math MCAS that “met or exceeded expectations” fell from 49% to 33% between 2019 and 2021.
In these latest results, that share has rebounded to 41%, meaning that the pandemic drop in math scores has shrunk by half — or eight percentage points — in just two years.
At Monday’s press briefing, Riley and Curtin stressed that the flat-to-positive statewide trend can mask stark differences at the local level, though both declined to discuss the performance of individual districts.
The data show some student groups are already exceeding benchmarks set in 2019 on at least one section of the MCAS, including tenth graders in Boston and Springfield (in English Language Arts), and eighth graders in Lowell and Worcester (in science).
On the other hand, there are 101 student populations — 46 in public school districts and 55 at charter schools — that remain at least 20 points behind their 2019 rates of scores “meeting or exceeding expectations.”
That lag is notable since the state’s charter schools have historically performed well on standardized tests, especially when compared to other urban districts.
And in some corners of the state, students are still struggling at uncommonly high rates.
In 2023, 11% of tenth-grade students statewide scored “not meeting expectations” in English and science. But some communities like Southbridge fared much worse: 45% of its sophomores failed to meet expectations in English and 50% failed to do so in science.
The Southbridge Public Schools have been under state control, otherwise known as “receivership,” since 2016 due in part to its historically low MCAS scores.
Lawrence — also in receivership — and Chelsea showed similarly high rates of “not meeting expectations” on at least one section of the tenth-grade test.
Federal dollars to support recovery
These latest scores come after two years of the federal government’s three-year disbursement of “ESSER III” pandemic relief funds to support educational recovery from the pandemic.
Altogether, public and charter schools in Massachusetts will receive an estimated $1.6 billion via ESSER III.
The state committed to using those funds to making up “unfinished learning,” as well as promoting safety in schools and fostering a “sense of belonging” for students whose learning was disrupted.
Individual districts, too, divided those federal dollars to address academic, operational and social-emotional needs.
Springfield, for example, added “acceleration academies” over vacation weeks and expanded pre-kindergarten. Meanwhile, Boston plans to send almost $150 million in ESSER funds directly to schools, expanding library access, training over 400 teachers and renovating its facilities.
Some of those investments — like facilities repairs, pre-K expansions, and stepped-up library programming — might not directly influence MCAS scores, or may take years before they do so.
State accountability system returns
The state’s accountability system — which uses MCAS scores and other metrics to target supports or interventions, including receivership — is being fully reintroduced this year for the first time since 2019.
But Riley said it’s too soon to say whether any districts or schools will pass into, or out of, state control as a result of these latest scores.
In the meantime, it’s not just districts that have to worry about posting high test scores. MCAS results also have consequences for individual high school students, who — in most cases — must meet or exceed a certain score threshold in order to receive their diplomas.
Starting next spring, those thresholds are set to rise, following a 2022 vote from the state’s board of elementary and secondary education.
To earn a so-called “competency determination,” current sophomores will need to score at least 486 on the English Language Arts and math sections of the test, and at least 470 on one of the test’s discipline-specific science and engineering exams.
Those score cut-offs will rise once again in five years, affecting students in the class of 2031 and thereafter.
Massachusetts voters can expect to weigh the MCAS graduation requirement in the year ahead: the state’s largest teachers’ union, along with several education advocacy groups, are hoping to end it with a ballot question in November 2024.
Massachusetts is one of just eight states to still use its standardized tests as a high school graduation requirement.