Report finds Boston students trail state in science achievement on MCAS despite signs of growth

Exam schools and charters perform most strongly; racial and economic performance gaps evident in BPS scores

January 23, 2019

Boston – A new report finds that despite some improvements over the past decade, Boston schools have largely been unable to close the gap with the rest of the state in achievement on the Science and Technology/Engineering MCAS test. The report, Getting It Right: Progress and Problems in Raising Science Achievement in Boston, was released today at an Understanding Boston forum at the Edgerley Center for Civic Leadership.

Report author Matthew Pakos, a former Associate Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, examined Science MCAS scores since 2008 and found that Boston schools lag the state average for percentage of students scoring Proficient or Advanced on the Science MCAS in Grades 5, 8 and 10, by 25 points or more. Less than 20 percent of Boston Public Schools students scored Proficient or Advanced on the Grade 5 and 8 Science MCAS in 2017, and fewer than half scored at those levels on their Grade 10 Science MCAS.*

BPS students have improved their performance at all three grade levels from 2008, and while BPS students tend to lag behind other cities in Massachusetts at Grade 5 and Grade 8, they outscore many of those same urban districts on Grade 10 Science tests.

Grade 5 Sci MCAS  

“In an era when science and technology are providing ever increasing opportunities in our economy and society, we need to do a better job providing a robust science education to Boston students,” said Paul S. Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation. “These results do highlight gains made in Boston over the past decade, but they suggest we are also still struggling to elevate our students’ performance in science to the level of their peers statewide, especially at the lower grades.”

The BPS data also show the district is following a number of statewide trends on the Science MCAS, with a lower percentage of students scoring Advanced or Proficient than in the Math or ELA tests. In Boston, as well as statewide, the percentage of students scoring Advanced or Proficient in the Science MCAS has stagnated since 2014.

In Boston, the data also illustrate long-standing disparities in the MCAS performance of Black and Latino students relative to their White and Asian peers. English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities also lagged well behind their peers. The differences were especially striking on the Grades 5 and 8 Science MCAS, where Black and Latino students were 2 to 3 times less likely to score Proficient or Advanced than Whites and Asians. At the high school level, White and Asian students, who make up about a quarter of the Grade 10 MCAS takers in Boston, were nearly twice as likely to score well on the Science MCAS.

Overall, the performance of BPS students continues to lag the state average, but there are some areas of high performance in the city. Students at Boston’s exam schools were 5 times as likely as those in non-exam schools to score proficient or higher on the Grade 8 Science MCAS. And Boston’s Commonwealth Charter school students were twice as likely as students in Horace Mann charter, innovation, pilot or traditional BPS schools to score Proficient or Advanced on the Grade 5 Science MCAS. In Grade 8, Commonwealth Charter students were more than three times as likely to score Proficient or Advanced as BPS non-exam school students.

In grade 10, comparisons become more complicated because students can take 1 of 4 science MCAS tests. Overall, Boston students performed relatively well compared to the state’s other urban districts in MCAS Biology and MCAS Physics, which 90 percent of BPS students take. But in both cases, BPS scored considerably below the state average for Proficient or Advanced, while Commonwealth charters actually exceeded the state average.

Overall, while 90 percent of BPS exam school students and 82 percent of Commonwealth Charter students scored Proficient or higher on their grade 10 Science MCAS, just 45 percent of pilot school, 43 percent of Horace Mann Charter, 31 percent of traditional BPS and 19 percent of innovation school students did.

* Note: Students need only score Needs Improvement or higher on the Science MCAS to meet the state high school graduation requirement.