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MCAS scores tell a story: are we listening?

Corey Yarbrough

The latest MCAS scores are out, and the results are definitely alarming. Scores are significantly below pre-pandemic levels. At current trends, it would take at least eight years for Massachusetts students to catch up.

Boston Public Schools students performed below the Massachusetts average across all grade levels and all subjects measured by the exam — and Black, Latino, and other marginalized student communities fared worse than their white and Asian counterparts.

These results echo findings reported last year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In the “Nation’s Report Card,” students in Boston — and across Massachusetts — hit their lowest achievement levels in more than a decade. Black and Latino students, low-income students and English language learners again saw some of the steepest declines.

But for Black and Latino students, the forecast predicts longer-term struggles. A 2023 report by the Boston Foundation and Boston Private Industry Council found steep declines in college-going rates in 2020 and 2021 for Black and Latino students compared to white and Asian students.

It’s clear our educational system is failing Black and Latino youth, and the pandemic has only made it worse. The challenge now lies in working together to implement urgent solutions. Despite additional federal and state funding, our schools remain under-resourced and unprepared to meet the needs of post-pandemic students — many of whom need individualized instruction, mental health support and social-emotional learning.

One way to help narrow the achievement gap faced by Black and Latino students is to invest in programs that support educators and offer personalized instruction. As the Boston Globe reported last fall, “researchers have touted ‘high-dosage tutoring’ — one-on-one or small-group instruction multiple times per week for at least half an hour — as a leading strategy.”

As the executive director of 826 Boston, a writing, tutoring and publishing organization supporting Boston Public Schools students since 2007, I’ve seen the power of this approach. Our team works with more than 3,000 K-12 students every year, with 94 percent of students identifying as students of color. A new study just released shows that when students have access to quality writing programs, they make significant gains in learning. Black students saw their writing scores jump 12 percent over the course of a year.

These programs don’t just boost academics. They boost confidence, too.

In 2021, 826 Boston partnered with Becoming A Man at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School to publish a book on becoming a Black man in America today. Students were mentored by Black men, who encouraged them to stand in their truth and write about their unique experiences of being young and Black in America. The project not only provided an opportunity for Black students to form positive bonds and strengthen their writing skills, but also created an opportunity for them to amplify their voices and stories. By the numbers, 93 percent of students expressed that they felt more confident in their writing.

Programs like 826 Boston — providing personalized instruction for students and extra support for teachers — can help students catch up while we advocate meaningful systemic change. Community problems require community solutions, and it will take a village — and a lot of hard work — to respond to the growing disparities faced by today’s youth. But I know we’re up for the challenge.

Corey Yarbrough is executive director of 826 Boston, a writing, tutoring and publishing organization based in Roxbury.

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