MCAS statewide 2011 results show gains for grades 5 and 10

Textbooks are stacked in readiness to provide students with knowledge to pass MCAS exams. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Although high school students continued to show improvement on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams in 2011, Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said on Thursday that progress across all grade levels was not as “consistent” or “strong” as he would like to see, according to a State House News Service report.

“There’s always need for improvement at every grade level and every subject,” Mr. Chester told the News Service on September 8 as state education officials released statewide results from the 2011 MCAS exams.

“The high school results are really something to celebrate. They’re really outstanding,” Mr. Chester said. “If you look at what we’ve accomplished going back to the late 1990s it’s been a steady upward climb and to see the ELA (English language arts) scores climb it’s been outstanding.” Tenth graders have improved their ELA performance by six percentage points a year after a slight decline, according to a press release from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Overall, 87 percent of 10th graders last year (class of 2013) met the state’s minimum testing requirements to earn a high school diploma after their first attempt, up from 83 percent two years ago (class of 2011) and 86 percent last year (class of 2012).

Fifth-grade students made four-point gains in the percent scoring proficient or higher in ELA and mathematics since last year. Overall, student performance on the ELA exam declined slightly in grades 3, 4 and 6.

While Mr. Chester acknowledged a two-point decline in third grade reading scores from 2010 to 2011, he also pointed out that scores showing nearly two-thirds of 3rd graders reading at a proficient level for the past two years are higher than at any point in the past six years.

Math scores remained unchanged among 10th graders, with slight improvements in grades 3, 5 and 8, but showed declining scores in grades 4, 6, and 7.

“We have set a high bar in Massachusetts for mathematics, but only half of our students are reaching that bar, and we need to do better,” Mr. Chester said.

The commissioner said he hopes the new curriculum frameworks approved last year and being phased in by districts across the state will help to “hone the sequence of instruction” from early grades through middle school to prepare students for algebra and higher mathematics, according to the State House News Service.

Mr. Chester also said that although 10th graders improved their performance on the science, technology and engineering (STE) exam by two percentage points, a one-point decline in grade 8 and a three-point drop in grade 5 highlighted the need for increased focus.

Governor Deval Patrick said in a prepared statement he was encouraged by the results, particularly the continued progress of 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,” he said.

Because the state has yet to compile school-level data, Mr. Chester said he does not yet have a sense of how the state measures up to the federal requirements that 100 percent of students be fully proficient in ELA and math by 2014 under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, signed into law by President George Bush in 2002. Mr. Chester said he predicts the percentage of students falling behind the national target to be greater than half and higher than last year because of the moving target under NCLB, the State House News Service article said.

Mr. Chester also identified several areas in need of improvement and increased focus, including overall literacy, middle school math and the science and technology curriculum.

MCAS exams were first administered in 1998, the DESE press release said. Students in the class of 2003 were the first required to pass the grade 10 ELA and math exams to earn a high school diploma. The STE exam was added to the state graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2010. District and school MCAS results are still being compiled and will be released publicly later this month along with district and school Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) results. For more information on the MCAS exam or to view the full statewide report, visit