MCAS Test Results Reveal Remote Learning Shortfalls in Math, English

Spring MCAS test results show more students had gaps in their knowledge of math and English language arts than students in the same grades before the pandemic.

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The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released the results of spring 2021 MCAS tests Tuesday morning.

Results show that many more students had gaps in their knowledge of math and, to a lesser extent, English language arts, compared to students in the same grades before the COVID-19 pandemic, and fewer students met or exceeded grade level expectations. 

"The results showed exactly what we all believed we would see," Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday. "The good news is the learning loss on the English language exams was less significant than people expected it to be. But the learning loss on the math exams was pretty significant."

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to publicly release results of spring 2021 MCAS tests Tuesday morning. Experts say the test results could help determine where students need more instruction after more than a year of remote learning.

MCAS tests were not administered in spring 2020, when students were newly learning remotely at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The department adjusted last year's testing program in a variety of ways, including postponing the exams and shortening them for third through eighth graders.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said the results do not show a major loss in learning.

"The MTA strongly opposed having districts administer the standardized MCAS exams last spring during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the results released today underscore the reasons for our stand in favor of students, schools and public education," Najimy said in a statement. "Educators reject the narrative that students have experienced tremendous learning loss. Rather they experienced dislocation and trauma."

Earlier this year, education officials agreed to allow the class of 2022 to graduate without needing to pass their 10th grade English and math exams, and to skip making new school and district accountability determinations based on 2021 results.

Overall, 46% of students in grades three through eight either met expectations or scored higher in English language arts in 2021, and 33% did so in math. Both of these represent a drop compared to 2019, when 52% scored at that level in English language arts and 49% did so in math.

"For example, Lexington experienced double-digit drops in 3-8 math proficiency," DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said. These are drops that districts have not seen to this degree, probably in the last 30 years, and they are spread out uniformly throughout the commonwealth.

For 10th grade English language arts, 64% of students either met expectations or scored higher compared to 61% in 2019. In 10th grade math, 52% met expectations or scored higher, compared to 59% in 2019.

“The MCAS tests administered in the spring provide Massachusetts educators and families with critical insight into where students did not progress academically, and the results clearly illustrate how the disrupted school year of remote and hybrid learning impacted students’ academic achievement,” Education Secretary James Peyser said. “We will continue to work with districts to support efforts to regain learning that did not happen and promote student success and educational equity.”

"I just think it's tough for educators who are working so hard to make the best of every situation, and the pressure on the kids is so hard," said educator Kathryn Webster. "It's hard to teach to a test that's not necessarily designed to all learners."

Due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, and following a vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in June, DESE is not issuing new accountability determinations for districts and schools this year.

The results will instead be used as a diagnostic tool to determine where students need more instruction after more than a year of remote learning, explained Ed Lambert of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

“The information that MCAS provides is integral understanding if we’re serving students in the way that our state constitution, the Student Opportunity Act, and moment require of us," Lambert said. "As long as we’re committed to a state responsibility to assure an excellent and equitable public education, we need a tool to understand how well we’re doing.”

The results come amid a renewed push to eliminate MCAS as a graduation requirement.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would eliminate the standardized test as a prerequisite for a high school diploma.

Baker said he remains a strong believer in the assessment test.

"I continue to believe the MCAS exam is a fundamental part of how we diagnose how we're doing and how we keep track of how kids are doing generally," he said.

Massachusetts school districts will receive approximately $2.8 billion in state and federal pandemic relief money in the three and a half years between the 2021-22 school year and fall 2024.

The money is primarily in the form of federal coronavirus relief funds, and districts can spend it on a wide-range of priorities in order to meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs resulting from the pandemic.

Families will receive their child’s MCAS scores after September 30.

Officials said families of students who were in grades three through eight in the spring should keep in mind that those students were given shorter than usual tests, which can cause individual student performance to vary more than usual as compared to previous years.

The State House News Service
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