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Decline in reading comes amid MCAS math gain

Jay Lindsay

Massachusetts students had their best results ever in the MCAS math exams, but that good news was tempered by falling or flat scores in English in nearly all grades, according to results released last week.

The state also saw a dip last year in the percentage of 10th graders who met the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, graduation requirement, from 87 percent who passed on the first try to 80 percent. The decline was due largely to a mandate, beginning with the Class of 2010, that students pass the MCAS science exam, besides both math and English.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said he felt positive, overall, about the scores. But he added he was concerned about the English scores, as well as an enduring achievement gap among racial groups.

“Too many … are not hitting the standards we know are going to prepare them for life after high school, so I’m not at all complacent about that,” he said.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing Inc. in Cambridge, which opposes using MCAS as a graduation requirement or to assess schools, said MCAS scores seemed to be flattening, while problems such as the achievement gap remain. Eighty-seven percent of whites in the Class of 2010 and 85 percent of Asians have met MCAS requirements to earn a diploma, compared with 58 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Hispanics.

The state needs an assessment that doesn’t focus on just a few subjects, Schaeffer said.

“MCAS has reached its limit in terms of serving as a driver of education reform, and we need to move beyond MCAS to a better, richer assessment system,” Schaeffer said.

Students need a 220 out of 280 on the three tests to meet the graduation requirements of the MCAS. A 240 is considered proficient, which all children must reach in math and English by 2014 under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Last year, 83 percent of students in the Class of 2010 passed the science exam, 93 percent passed English and 88 percent passed math, including 72 percent who scored proficient, a 4 percent increase. Eighty percent passed all three tests.

Every grade tested saw gains in the percentage who scored proficient, with grades six and eight matching the 4 percent gain by the Class of 2010, and everyone else gaining 1 percent.

“That’s very encouraging,” Chester said.

But Chester also noted that in math, some grades, particularly in middle school, were struggling to reach the 50 percent proficient level.

“We still have a lot of work to do in that area,” he said.

Chester said he didn’t expect the new science requirement to be a drag on the overall passing rate for long because schools are ramping up curriculums to meet the standard.

In English, the Class of 2010 was the only grade that saw its scores rise, compared with the previous year. Chester said he was particularly worried about a drop in the percentage of students scoring proficient and higher in grades, three, four and five, and noted the steep drop in Grade 4, which fell from 56 percent proficient in 2007 to 49 percent in 2008.

“I am concerned that the emphasis in early grade reading may have swung too far toward the mechanics of reading … without enough attention being paid to understanding what you’re reading,” Chester said.

He said that younger readers can’t just read fiction stories, but also nonfiction and expository texts. The state has early reading programs in place, but “we need to step” it up to help districts that need it, he said.

(Associated Press)