Statewide standardized test scores released Tuesday revealed what is a surprise to no one: More than a year of learning at home by computer, attending class in person part time, and facing other pandemic-related school disruptions caused students’ scores to drop dramatically in nearly every district, in every grade and in every subject.
The one exception occurred on the 10th grade English exam, where students statewide bested the scores of their peers who took the test in the spring of 2019 by 3 percentage points. The difference was even greater in places like Easthampton, where the high school students’ scores in the subject jumped by 13 percentage points. In Palmer they increased by 8 points and in Springfield they increased by 6 points.
Scores will not be tied to graduation for the class of 2022, so many 10th graders only took the exam for the purpose of receiving scholarships tied to high scores.
“Drops were seen all over the commonwealth of Massachusetts including in our wealthier suburbs,” commissioner Jeffrey Riley said during a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting where the scores were unveiled. “These are drops we haven’t seen in decades.”
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems exam is usually given in the spring to grades three through eight and grade 10. It was suspended in 2020 after schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was administered this spring just weeks after students started returning to in-person classes.
Officials are not using the scores to judge districts’ success and accountability this year, Riley said.
He pointed out that Lexington saw double-digit drops in scores. Many Western Massachusetts suburban districts also saw dramatic declines. Longmeadow eighth-graders dropped 30 percentage points in math and 12 in English, South Hadley third-graders dropped 30 points in math, and Agawam fourth-graders dropped 28 points in math and three in English language arts.
Charter schools were not spared. For example, sixth-graders at Holyoke Community Charter School saw a 23 percentage-point decline in English and a 39 percentage-point decline in math. Four Rivers Charter School, in Greenfield, saw an 18 percentage-point decline in English and a 39 percentage-point drop in its math average in grades three through eight.
Subgroups of students, such as those with learning disabilities, those who speak limited English and children of different races, declined no more than the average, said Robert Curtain, associate education commissioner for the state.
Curtain said the state is still trying to understand why the 10th graders outperformed students in 2019. The test was given in the same format and the participation rate, while lower at 90%, was not that different from previous years and was the same as the math rate.
“There are a lot of questions to be asked here and we are going to dig deeper into them,” he said.
“I’m grateful for the insight into remote learning, which I think went very poorly,” said Michael J. Moriarty, a board member and a former Holyoke School Committee member.
He said he is especially concerned about the third-grade scores, which show more than half the children are not reading at grade level. Third-grade reading is considered a benchmark because children begin to use reading skills to learn other subjects once they reach fourth grade.
Moriarty said he is hoping to see changes in the methods of instruction that will move schools to a new era and improve quality of education.
In Springfield — where students were learning remotely for a year and then switched to a mix of in-person and remote learning in the spring — the decline in test scores was consistent with the rest of the state, superintendent Daniel Warwick said.
“As disappointing as this reality is, there is some comfort in knowing that the decline experienced here in Springfield was not significant enough to undermine the gains we have made in working to close the achievement gap,” Warwick said in writing. “Nonetheless, there is plenty of work ahead for us and we intend to rely heavily on our internal diagnostic tools and programs in our efforts to address student lapse.”
While area superintendents said they are examining the data from the test scores and using it to identify gaps, they are not using the MCAS as the be-all-end-all of evaluating students.
“MCAS is one measure. You can’t judge education on one test score, especially since we can track student progress in real time,” said Stefan Czaporowski, the Westfield superintendent. “We are trying to shift away from teaching for the MCAS and we are trying to push more to create critical thinkers.”
Right now educators’ first priority is on students’ social and emotional well-being and rebuilding the school community, Czaporowski said. After 18 months of being away from school, teachers have significant concerns about students’ behavior and increases in their anxiety and stress levels.
“The first step is to build relationships so they feel safe coming to school … so they can absorb the education,” he said. “Some have been through trauma, lost family members, and we are here to support them.”
The district is using a variety of measures such as graduation rate, the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, and increasing relevance of what students are learning to their everyday lives and futures, said Denise Ruszala, director of assessment and accountability.
Some benefits, such as seeing high school seniors graduate well-prepared for college because they have successfully taken classes at Westfield State University, makes a difference in students’ lives but may not be measured by state accountability systems, Czaporowski said.
Westfield is one of the few communities that created a remote academy this year, allowing students who did excel in virtual learning to continue classes that way, Czaporowski said. Springfield also created a virtual school this year.
Over the summer a number of Westfield educators met for a curriculum summit designed to improve the rigor in the curriculum, especially in English and science. The effort came after teachers noticed students were having difficulty with some of the “higher depth of knowledge” standards, Ruszala said.
“I’ll say it. We had no business taking the MCAS last year,” Czaporowski said. “Students had been back for just two weeks. We didn’t need to lose precious in-person time when they had been in remote or hybrid for most of the year to give the test.”
Chicopee also saw double-digit declines in math and English in some grade levels. Superintendent Lynn A. Clark noted one of the biggest drops was at Patrick E. Bowe School, where elementary students were remote for longer because the building was closed for ventilation system repairs.
She said Chicopee schools are also focusing this year on ensuring students are socially and emotionally ready to learn.
“We are facing students who are lethargic, their stamina is less than it used to be,” she said. “I’m most concerned about students and staff and their well-being.”
Realizing students slid back, teachers are using state and federal COVID-19 relief money to offer after-school academies to address academic gaps. For grades three through five, there will be a math academy after school for about 1.5 hours a week, and there are focused academies for middle school grades.
Educators are also considering holding acceleration camps during vacation weeks. Over the summer they offered a weeklong math camp for students entering grade nine to help them get ready for algebra.
Chicopee schools have also partnered with Americorps to hire extra tutors to give students one-on-one help, Clark said.
“Things will work out,” she said. “They may not work out in a month, they may not work out in three months, but they will work out. Some will naturally come along.”
Parents will receive reports on individual students’ MCAS scores later this month. Clark urged families to not worry much about them because it was such a difficult year.
Holyoke, which is in its seventh year of state receivership related to low test scores, also saw declines, but they were consistent with statewide drops. The gap in performance between city students and the statewide average in grades three through eight remained the same in math and decreased in English. The gap also closed in both subjects for 10th graders, according to Anthony Soto, interim receiver and superintendent.
“Although the gap declined, the overall level of performance continues to be very concerning,” he said in a statement.
The overall decline was larger in math than in English, which is also consistent with statewide numbers. English scores for grade 10 students increased by 7 percentage points, he said.
“These results highlight the importance of our students attending school in-person with their teachers and peers. (Holyoke Public Schools) has been proactively planning to address the anticipated gaps identified by the MCAS as well as our internal assessments,” he said.
Included in the efforts is to increase academic coaching, adding math and reading interventionists and developing plans to give students who scored in the lowest quarter targeted assistance, he said.
The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District was an anomaly in the test scores since students there increased in most categories. The average scores for English and math in grades three through eight were 9 and 7 percentage points higher than they were in 2019. In 10th grade they rose by 16 points in English and 11 points in math.
Superintendent Michael Morris attributed some of the growth to the effort the district put into the transition to distance learning. As part of teacher training, the district sought help from an international school that has been doing remote learning for years.
“Our teachers rose to the challenge and did a phenomenal job,” he said.
Trying to transfer traditional in-person teaching to remote education does not work that well, Morris said. Teachers learned they had to use different teaching styles.
Now that students are back in person, one thing Amherst regional schools are doing to address their well-being is taking them outside more for classes as well as breaks, he said.