Jubilant state officials hailed the scores at a State House news conference yesterday as "extremely impressive" proof that Massachusetts' 10-year effort to improve public schools is bearing fruit. But they acknowledged that a racial achievement gap persists, with more than half of Latino students and almost half of African-American students failing one or both of the 10th-grade tests.
"There have not been wholesale brain transplants. There has not been an increase in the IQ of the citizenry of Massachusetts," Governor Mitt Romney said. "Instead, our education system is doing a better job with our kids."
About 527,000 students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 took one or more sections of the MCAS in April and May, in English, math, or science.
The results were particularly encouraging for 10th-graders, members of the class of 2005, who were in first grade when the 1993 Education Reform Act, which introduced the tests, became law. About 80 percent passed the math test on their first attempt, and 89 percent passed English.
Scores also improved for students with disabilities and those with limited English skills -- two groups that have struggled with the exam since it became a graduation requirement with the class of 2003. About 46 percent of disabled students passed the 10th-grade test after just one round, up from 32 percent last year. About 34 percent of limited-English students passed, double the 17 percent who passed a year ago. The jump came despite new federal and state laws allowing few students with a native language other than English to skip the test.
To some observers, the signs were clear that 10 years of efforts on education, from billions of dollars in new funding to the first statewide curriculum standards, were paying off. Massachusetts has recorded parallel gains on national tests such as the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"All signs are that education reform is taking root, and this is part of the harvest," said Andrew Effrat, dean of the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Still, Effrat said, the battle is not over, calling the failure rates for minority students significant.
For example, 84 percent of white 10th-graders passed MCAS on their first try, compared with 44 percent of Latinos and 52 percent of blacks.
However, Massachusetts commissioner of education, David P. Driscoll, and the state Board of Education chairman, James A. Peyser, pointed to higher scores for black and Latino teens as evidence of a "dramatic breakthrough" in the achievement gap. In 2001, 77 percent of white 10th-graders passed MCAS on their first try, compared with 29 percent of Latinos and 37 percent of blacks.
Left unanswered yesterday were questions about a steep drop in the number of black test-takers. State education officials said they will need to study why only 3,530 black 10th-graders took the test this spring, down from 4,587 last year. The number of white test-takers also dropped, from 49,866 to 44,131. One possible explanation is that fewer students specified their race this year, state officials said.
It could also stem from an increase in the number of students dropping out, leaving Massachusetts, or repeating ninth grade.
First administered in 1998, the MCAS test has sparked rallies, protests, and a campaign for a statewide ballot question to get rid of the graduation requirement. Last year, a group of students in the class of 2003 sued the state, saying the Board of Education had exceeded its authority in enacting a graduation requirement and that schools had not prepared them for it.
Students in 10th grade can take the test five times before graduation, but they must pass MCAS and all of their classes to earn a diploma. Individual school and district scores will be released in about two weeks, along with retest scores from the class of 2003 and 2004 that will show how many students still must pass before earning their diploma.
MCAS opponents yesterday questioned how the gains could last as schools facing significant budget cuts this year have laid off teachers, boosted class sizes, and slashed supplies. In addition, the Legislature sliced the $53 million in state money for MCAS tutoring to $10 million this year, and a Romney spokeswoman said she could not say whether the governor will include more money for MCAS help in his forthcoming supplemental budget.
Some MCAS critics attributed the gains to a relentless focus on test preparation in schools and the practice of holding back ninth-graders who are not prepared for the exam, and who may later drop out.
"Clearly, test preparation makes test scores go up, and other things contribute, like attrition, which has been a consistent theme and not so much paid attention to" by the Department of Education, said Lisa Guisbond, a statewide coordinator of the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, which opposes the MCAS graduation requirement. "These are things that continue to be troubling."
Guisbond also questioned whether changes in scoring could have inflated results. This year, 10th-graders needed 19 out of 60 points on the math test to pass, down from 20 out of 60 last year, state officials said. On the English test, they needed 38 out of 72 points to pass, down from 41 out of 72.
Jeff Nellhaus, associate commissioner for student assessment, said the Department of Education lowered the number of points needed to pass because a statistical analysis of the exam showed that it had harder questions than the year before.
School districts received their students' scores last month and are just now analyzing the results. Tyshawnna Richardson, a junior at the Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester, passed English but not math. Twenty-five sophomores at the school took the exam -- all passed English, and about two-thirds passed the math section.
"I plan on going over whatever I didn't get, to understand it so this time I can pass," said Richardson, 16, of Mattapan. "It wasn't that hard."