State standardized test scores improved for students in all grades this past spring, after two years of largely stagnant or declining results, but reflected a persistent achievement gap between minority-group and white students, according to data released yesterday by the state Department of Education.
The percentage of 10th-graders scoring in the top two categories in spring 2007 in both English and math improved by two points in each of the four major demographic categories, with white students remaining 35 percentage points ahead of black students and 38 percentage points ahead of Hispanic students. Asians outpaced whites by one percentage point, with 68 percent scoring in the top two categories.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Massachusetts public schools are required to have all students score in advanced and proficient categories by 2014, or schools could face sanctions ranging from a loss of federal grant money to a state takeover of a school.
Such sanctions already loom or have been imposed on schools that have failed to show annual improvement in reaching that goal on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, which are given each spring in grades 3 to 8, as well as Grade 10. The state is expected to announce today the names of schools that missed their targets for the spring 2007 exam.
The gap in scores prompted calls yesterday from state education leaders and politicians, including Governor Deval Patrick, for the state to dedicate more resources to programs such as full-day kindergarten and universal preschool that can help students from minority groups improve performance. They also talked of engaging social service agencies to address a host of other issues in children's homes, such as inadequate nutrition and healthcare, which can make it more difficult for students to achieve.
"How to address the well-pronounced and persistent despair that afflicts disadvantaged families and children is a challenge we have to work on, but it has to be more than teachers and public school officials working on it," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "It cries out for us to address it on a broad range of issues."
In a statement, Patrick agreed that more work needs to be done to narrow the achievement gap.
"If we are to move education forward in this Commonwealth, it is essential we work to educate the whole child from the time they start learning before kindergarten through Grade 12 and higher education and continue that effort in workforce development and lifelong learning," said Patrick, who released a plan earlier this year calling for universal access to public education from preschool through two years of community college.
Currently, students need only to score in the top three of the four scoring categories - advanced, proficient, and needs improvement - to pass any segment of the exam.
When all three categories are considered, black and Hispanic students have made significant strides in catching up with their peers. In spring 2007, the gap between black and white students passing the 10th-grade exam on the first try was 18 percentage points, compared with 40 percentage points in 2001. Similarly, the gap between Hispanic and white students fell to 24 percentage points from 48 percentage points in 2001.
Jeffrey Nellhaus, the state's acting education commissioner, acknowledged in an interview yesterday that he would like to see the gap narrow more quickly and said the state is helping some school districts make that happen by providing money to start full-day kindergarten or to lengthen the school day for several grades of students.
Also starting with the class of 2010, students who score in the needs-improvement category on the 10th grade exam will receive additional help in class. Schools will have to develop educational plans for those students, which should help students master more sophisticated skills, such as problem solving and writing, before they graduate.
Nellhaus, though, preferred to tout yesterday's news of the overall improvement of scores for white and minority students.
"If the gap was widening, not improving, I would find that alarming," Nellhaus said. "But the scores are improving. That's positive, as long as the scores continue to improve."
The improved scores generated much relief among policymakers and education leaders, especially for grades 3 to 8, where scores had remained flat or declined the two previous years. That had prompted worry among state leaders and local school officials about whether the state's effort to bolster academic rigor and achievement, which began in 1993, had peaked.
On the math exam, the percentage of students in grades 3 to 8 in the top two categories increased between five and eight points, while in English the percentage in grades 3 to 8 grew by one to six points.
And nearly nine out of 10 sophomores, or 87 percent, passed MCAS on the first try, which was the highest rate since the test became a high school graduation requirement for the class of 2003.
But some education leaders questioned whether Massachusetts will reach the federal government's lofty testing goals within seven years.
"It's climbing closer, but I don't think it will happen," said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "It's an unrealistic accomplishment. But that doesn't mean we can't keep trying and keep working to raise student learning."