The learning loss that came about as a result of the pandemic and its shift towards remote schooling for more than two years is still showing up in standardized test results, state education officials said Thursday as they released the latest batch of MCAS scores.
Results from the spring 2022 MCAS tests “were mixed,” the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said. Math and science scores improved from 2021 results, but English language arts scores declined. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, the overall results “show continued need for improvement,” DESE said.
“These results show that it may take a few years for students to recover academically from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students need more time learning, whether it is in the form of tutoring, acceleration academies, early literacy, after school programs or summer learning,” Education Secretary James Peyser said. “We have committed approximately $130 million in federal and state funds to these efforts. We know school districts are using these funds to increase instructional time and implement other proven strategies for improving student outcomes.”
Students at all levels showed deterioration in English language arts scores in 2022 as compared to 2021. Just 41 percent of third through eighth graders scored in the “meeting or exceeding expectations” range, a drop of 5 percentage points from 2021. DESE said that grades three through five showed sharper declines than grades six through eight, “indicating challenges in early literacy.” Among 10th graders, 58 percent met or exceeded expectation, down 6 percentage points from 2021.
On the math portion of the test, 39 percent of third through eighth graders met or exceeded expectations, 6 percentage points higher than a year ago. Exactly half of 10th graders met or exceeded expectations for math, a decline of 2 percentage points from 2021, DESE said. Fifth graders and eighth graders showed small improvements in science — 43 percent and 42 percent meeting or exceeding expectations, respectively, both up 1 percentage point from 2021. Forty-seven percent of high schoolers met or exceeded expectations on the new biology and introductory physics tests, which DESE said can’t be compared to previous years’ results.
“We know that with time and the right supports, our students can achieve and exceed their previous successes,” Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said. “We also continue to work with teachers and districts to improve early literacy instruction and, through deeper learning initiatives, make Massachusetts schools more relevant, engaging and creative places to be a student or teacher.”
Lawmakers created the MCAS system in a 1993 education reform law that was aimed at improving accountability and school performance. The first tests were given in 1998, and students have been required to achieve sufficient scores to graduate since the class of 2003.
Most students take the tests linked to graduation in 10th grade, though they can retake exams up to four more times if they do not score high enough. MCAS has long been a controversial test and measurement of student achievement, with opponents arguing that setting the exams as a bar all students must clear forces teachers to narrow their focus on test preparation and creates unnecessary stress in the classroom.
The 115,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, in a statement from President Max Page, said the results released Thursday are “anything but surprising.” Page said the scores are evidence that schools don’t have enough teachers and that students “are showing the cumulative impact of trauma” from the pandemic.
“Our schools need more educators who can help respond to their emotional and academic needs — including counselors, teachers, and Education Support Professionals. What they do not need is a time-wasting, myopic focus on a high-stakes standardized testing system that has never worked as an accurate assessment of how well our students are doing in school,” Page said in the statement. He added, “The pressure on educators and students to produce ever-increasing scores steals precious time in classrooms from learning — hours could be better spent working together on hands-on projects and other collaborative efforts that allow students to demonstrate both their command of subject matter and their creativity. The countless hours spent on drill-based test prep are wasted.”
This year was the first time since 2019 that DESE administered full MCAS tests in grades 3-8 and in high school. The state did not administer its standardized tests in the spring of 2020, when schools abruptly pivoted to remote learning as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. And last year, the annual exams were held with several adjustments, including shorter tests for third through eighth graders and a remote option.
In August, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to update MCAS regulations and the competency determination to establish a new passing standard for English language arts, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering starting with this year’s freshman class.
MCAS results are often accompanied by DESE’s corresponding school and district accountability determinations. The state did not make accountability determinations last year and this year released only some of its data “under federal flexibility granted for one year.” DESE reported Thursday on accountability indicators like graduation and chronic absenteeism rates.
“All schools previously identified by the Commissioner as Underperforming or Chronically Underperforming have maintained that status as part of today’s release, and each school’s status will be evaluated by the Commissioner in the coming weeks,” DESE said. “Additionally, the Commissioner will not be designating any new schools as Underperforming or Chronically Underperforming.”