MCAS scores show near universal slide during pandemic

Officials ponder how to deal with setbacks

The first MCAS tests administered in the Covid-19 era featured drops in scores "across the board," the state's education commissioner said Tuesday, adding that the results show "everyone is going to have to step forward" to address kids' mental health and academic needs.

"I think the headline today is that it appears that racial achievement gaps did not increase, and that is because drops were seen all over the commonwealth of Massachusetts, including our wealthiest suburbs," Commissioner Jeff Riley told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"For example,” he said, “Lexington experienced double-digit drops in grade three to eight math proficiency. These are drops that districts have not seen to this degree probably in the last 30 years, and they are spread out uniformly across the commonwealth."

Riley said results from the spring 2021 MCAS tests align with national trends that show "smaller drops in English language arts and more pronounced drops in mathematics compared to two years ago."

The state did not administer its standardized tests in the spring of 2020, when schools abruptly pivoted to remote learning as the pandemic took hold. A year later, they issued the annual exams with several adjustments, including shorter tests for third through eighth graders and a remote option.

Of the more than 1 million tests administered last year, about 85 percent were administered in-person and 15 percent remotely, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

On the third through eighth grade tests, the percentage of students scoring "meeting expectations" or higher fell from 49 percent in 2019 to 33 percent in 2021. For the English language arts test, it dropped from 52 percent in 2019 to 46 percent in 2021.

In tenth grade, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in math was also down -- to 52 percent from 59 percent – while it ticked upward in English, rising to 64 percent from 61 percent in 2019.

The 2020-2021 school year was marked by stretches of remote learning, while families continued to cope with the health and economic ramifications of the coronavirus. Because of the pandemic's disruptions, education officials agreed not to issue new school or district accountability determinations this year.

Gov. Baker said the results "showed exactly what I think all of us believed we would see. The good news, to the extent there was some, is the learning loss on the English language exams was less significant than I think people anticipated it would be." The learning loss on the math exams was pretty significant, he noted. “I think we, and our colleagues in local government, need to put a lot of the federal resources that we both received to work on a variety of acceleration academies and special programs."

A day after lawmakers heard testimony on bills that would pause MCAS administration or eliminate its use as a graduation requirement, several groups on Tuesday described the results as an important source of information about how students have fared amid the pandemic.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said that because school leaders have had the results since July, there has been "sufficient time to plan for how to get students back on track, and the substantial levels of federal funding they continue to receive means they have the resources to invest in what is needed, including new approaches."

Democrats for Education Reform state director Liam Kerr said educators should use the test scores "to zero in on what students need to learn as part of their academic recovery from the pandemic's effects," and Keri Rodrigues of Massachusetts Parents United said that families "should be asking how district and school leaders used MCAS scores over the summer to create informed plans to guide student learning and propel their academic recovery in the 2021-2022 school year."

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts said it would "continue working to advance legislative fixes to our state's broken assessment and accountability system," singling out Education Committee co-chair Sen. Jason Lewis's bill (S 361) creating a commission "to Re-Imagine School Assessment and Accountability."

"Instead of spending time preparing for standardized tests that have limited meaning and utility, our focus this year should be on providing all students with the support, staffing, and resources they need to address both their academic and social-emotional needs — needs that in many cases were exacerbated by the pandemic," AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association pushed back against the results and what it described as "false interpretations being put on them by groups favoring privatization and other ways to disrupt public education."

"The MTA maintains that the MCAS simply measures the degree to which a community has been under-resourced and underfunded – and the degree to which narrow curriculum frameworks alienate so many students," MTA President Merrie Najimy said.

The education board's MCAS discussion Tuesday was interrupted by the sounding of an alarm in the state office building where the meeting was taking place, on Ashburton Place across from the State House. Board members evacuated, and the proceedings were paused for about 20 minutes.

When they returned, member Matt Hills brought up the three-year memorandum of understanding announced last year between state education officials and the Boston school system, which the department has said includes a focus on "measurable improvements" at 33 schools.

"I just want to say to you, Jeff, that as you go through the fall and you assess the situation, there's a point at which we should have a conversation about whether to go further and look at receivership, or whether to say, at some point, you just can't fix individual problems if that core issue is not going to be addressed in the organization," he told Riley.

In Boston, 20 percent of tested students met or exceeded expectations on grade three through eight math tests, down 13 percentage points from 2019, and 31 percent met or exceeded expectations on English language arts (ELA) tests in those grades, down four points from 2019.

"The results released today confirm what we all know: our kids struggled during this pandemic, and it will require an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure we do everything possible to get them caught up," Boston superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. "We will continue our investments in supporting our students' health and well-being, as well as sharpening our focus on accelerating our students' academic achievement."

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