MCAS results show progress, but pandemic impacts linger


State House News Service
Published: 9/21/2023 9:04:19 PM

BOSTON — Students are still performing well below pre-pandemic levels on the latest batch of statewide standardized test results, though education department officials say the scores show that the “achievement slide” from COVID-19 “has halted and recovery is underway.”

In English and math, students in grades three through eight are still about 10 percentage points behind where they were in 2019, before learning losses from remote schooling and other pandemic challenges. However, achievement levels in these subjects either went up or stayed the same compared to last year’s results across all grades.

The results from the 2022-2023 school year represent the first time since before COVID-19 that students in all tested grades took the full Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam.

Compared to 2022, the number of students meeting or exceeding expectations in math increased by 2 percentage points in third through eighth grade, to 41 percent. Exactly half of all 10th graders met this target in math in 2023, the same percentage as the year before.

Students in 10th grade also remained stagnant in English language arts from last school year, with 58% of high school test-takers meeting targets. There was a slight increase for elementary and middle schoolers, of whom 42% (or one percentage point higher than last year), hit this expectation mark.

“Now, more than ever, we need to continue on the momentum,” Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said at an education board meeting Tuesday.

Fourth and fifth graders made the most improvement since 2022, on average increasing ELA scores by 2 and 3 percentage points, respectively. But despite this growth, these scores still trailed 12 percentage points and 8 percentage points behind 2019 scores.

“Our upper elementary grades are where a real pocket of success and momentum exists coming out of these results,” said Rob Curtin, DESE’s officer for data, assessment and accountability.

He later added, “Compared to where we were pre-pandemic, we still have ground to make up.”

While 10th graders on average didn’t improve upon ELA scores compared to the previous year, the high schoolers are closer behind 2019 scores than some younger students. In ELA, the grade 10 scores from 2023 are only three points behind pre-pandemic levels, compared to 12 points in grades three and four.

Science scores decreased in grades five and eight but held steady in high school, with the percentage of fifth graders and eighth graders meeting expectations decreasing by one percentage point each, to 42% and 41%, respectively. In 10th grade, 47% of students met or exceeded expectations in science.

Riley said the state results can mask variation in districts, schools and student subgroups, so the department is continuing to “dig into the data and assist districts where needed.”

“On one hand, we see our 10th grade African American students have not only returned to pre-pandemic levels, they’ve actually gone above it, I think 4 percentage points,” he said. “At the same time, we see some of our districts that were particularly hit hard by COVID continue to struggle.”

When last year’s MCAS results were released, then-Education Secretary James Peyser warned that it would take schools years to bounce back from pandemic learning losses.

“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,” he said at the time.

In a statement included in a DESE press release, Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler pointed out that learning losses are not exclusive to Massachusetts.

“Pandemic learning loss is a national problem, but these results show signs of recovery thanks to the hard work of educators, students, families, and staff,” Tutwiler said. “We know there is still much to be done, and we will continue to improve and strengthen our schools until every student can access the supports and resources they need to succeed.”

Curtin raised a red flag during his presentation — third grade was the only grade where students did not improve in ELA or math scores compared to last year, but results remained flat.

“My daughter was in pre-K in 2020, and she is now coming into third grade. Some of these kids that were in that age range — she was in pre-K in 2020, lost 80 days of her pre-K development. Her kindergarten year and 2021 were severely interrupted, and Omicron in 2022,” Curtin said. “They’re now going to be coming into the testing focus areas starting in grade three. So we just wanted to caution that some of the kids that were most impacted are now going to be coming into these results.”

He said that while he was “excited about the momentum that these results show us,” that the department is “cautious with what might come in the future.”


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