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MCAS results paint mixed picture

10th-graders gain, but some scores fall

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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More Massachusetts 10th-graders this past spring cleared the MCAS graduation hurdle, but scores for third-grade reading - a critical indicator of future school success - dropped again, according to the latest test results released yesterday.

The performance among the oldest and youngest test-takers reflected the mixed results across all grade levels and subjects tested under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. It also renewed concerns among some education advocates that local schools might be experiencing difficulty jump-starting stagnant academic achievement.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released the results in an unusually low-key manner. Instead of the fanfare of a press conference as in past years, officials issued a press release that focused on the positive aspects of the scores among the more than 500,000 test-takers.

All students in grades 3 through 8 and Grade 10 take tests in English and math, while fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders also take exams in science. Overall, students showed improvement on eight of the 17 tests, and performance slipped on all the other exams with the exception of one in which results were flat.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he was heartened by the improvements in the 10th grade, where 87 percent of students passed all tests in English, math, and science - a state graduation requirement. That’s an increase of 1 percentage point from the previous year.

“The high school results are remarkable,’’ Chester said in an interview, noting pass rates for the most part have been rising for more than a decade. “Massachusetts has done a great job of raising the bar and developing for secondary school students a much better education.’’

Chester said he was also pleased that the portion of fifth-graders scoring proficient or advanced rose by 4 percentage points in both English and math, to 67 percent and 59 percent.

But Chester also expressed disappointment that other results slipped or showed only slight improvement.

“I would like to see all results moving up two, three, or four points,’’ he said.

In a statement, Governor Deval Patrick said: “I am encouraged by these results and particularly the continued progress of our high school students. We are on the right track but still have more work ahead to improve outcomes and close achievement gaps for all students.’’

The department released only statewide results yesterday. Scores for individual schools and districts will come out later this month.

Uneven MCAS results have been a recurring theme in recent years, and state leaders have been responding. In January 2010, Massachusetts enacted a new law that aimed to accelerate academic achievement across the state and to close an alarming gap in performance among students of different backgrounds.

The law sparked a wave of changes across the state, as superintendents launched wholesale overhauls of underperforming schools while also creating autonomous schools that are experimenting with innovative teaching practices and extended school days.

Some education advocates say that once these efforts take root, particularly in districts with chronically low achievement, MCAS results should steadily climb. Massachusetts received a $250 million grant last year from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top fund, a competitive education grant program, to help fund the changes.

“The pace of improvement needs to be quickened, but from a practical standpoint we are moving ahead in areas where we should,’’ said Christopher Anderson, a former state education board chairman who is president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council. “We should see some significant improvement in the next few years.’’

Chester said he also expects achievement to rise, as school districts phase in a uniform set of academic standards in math and English that Massachusetts, like many other states, adopted last year to better prepare high school graduates for college or the workplace. Massachusetts expects to try out new standardized tests, based on those common standards, in two years, a move that could ultimately revamp or even replace the MCAS.

Some progress was made this year in closing achievement gaps on the MCAS. In English, African-American students narrowed the gap in performance with white students between 2 to 6 percentage points at most grade levels, while Latino students narrowed the gap with white students by 1 to 3 points at most grade levels.

But achievement gaps widened in English at Grade 3, as the overall scores dropped, a disturbing turn of events that halted two years of consecutive gains, advocates said.

Just 61 percent of third-graders scored proficient or advanced in English - 1 percentage point lower than in 2001. Scores over the past decade have fluctuated widely.

“We are discouraged,’’ said Margaret Blood, president of Strategies for Children, a Boston nonprofit organization that advocates for early childhood education and literacy. “The research shows 74 percent of students who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade will continue to struggle and are at risk of dropping out of high school.’’

Blood said the inability to gain traction in boosting third-graders’ English scores highlights the need for a greater investment by the state in providing equal access to high-quality early education for all children and more reading intervention programs. State funding in those two areas has been cut in recent years.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said closing the achievement gap is a “tall task’’ for school districts, but one that superintendents are taking seriously as they retrain teachers and bring in new programs and assessments.

“I would say for them it’s daily work,’’ Scott said. “It’s really a passion for them to help the kids make it. When they see any area of improvement, there is a sense ‘we are making progress,’ but clearly we haven’t found everything we need to do to bring [achievement] to the level we want.’’

Contact James Vaznis at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.