Reading and math scores on state tests for Maryland elementary and middle school students have dropped to their lowest levels in seven years, according to a Washington Post analysis of 2014 test data released Friday. Some Maryland officials expected the drop because schools are transitioning to new national academic standards that do not align with the tests.
State and county educators said the across-the-board decline on the final Maryland School Assessment (MSA) was largely a result of the state’s move to a curriculum aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The new curriculum shifts some academic topics to different grade levels, especially in math, making the MSA obsolete.
Students’ scores had been steadily inching up until 2013, when there were sharp declines in reading and math scores, a slide that continued this year. In 2014, overall proficiency scores in reading and math among elementary students fell 5.2 percentage points to 80 percent proficiency. Middle-schoolers fared worse — 71.4 percent proficiency, a drop of 6.5 percentage points. Drops in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties roughly mirrored the state averages.
During the past two years, the state has shifted its instruction to prepare for the tests by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which are aligned with the Common Core and were recently field-tested in Maryland.
“We knew going into this assessment period that the standards and the curricula being taught were not completely aligned,” State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery said. “However, school systems can use the MSA data to continue analyzing the achievement of specific student groups, classrooms and schools.”
Michael Brickman, national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-reform think tank, said several states are seeing similar drops in scores as they move to the Common Core, the national K-12 standards that require new curricula, materials and approaches to teaching. Brickman said that in some of those states, there is a decline because they are raising the bar on the tests they are administering. “It’s not as though students are knowing less,” he said. “The tests are getting harder.”
Jack Smith, chief academic officer for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the curriculum shift had an impact: “The MSA is not asking questions that are directly related to what kids have experienced in class.”
Some parents and teachers criticized the state for administering a test that they considered to be a waste of time.
“The scores mean nothing at all,” said Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a social studies teacher who introduced legislation this year to skip the exams. “You are testing kids on content that they are no longer learning.”
In Montgomery, the countywide council of PTAs made a similar push, urging state officials to seek a federal waiver of the test requirement. Michelle Gluck, vice president for educational issues of the countywide PTA council, called the MSA results predictable.
“The surprising thing would have been if they hadn’t gone down or if they went up,” Gluck said. “Then we would have had something to talk about.”
Patrick Dunn, an Olney parent of two, said he thought the MSAs were not especially meaningful before the misalignment — and even less so afterward. “I’m not concerned,” he said. “I think they were immaterial and a waste.”
But state officials said they had to give the tests because they are required under federal law. They also said they believed that there was some value in examining results, especially on a local level, to try to identify achievement gaps within districts. If scores dropped at one school but not another, “that ought to cause educators to ask questions about why,” Smith said.
Earnest Moore, a parent and past president of the Prince George’s County Parent and Teachers Association Council, said school leaders repeatedly warned parents that the scores would likely drop as the new standards were being implemented. He believes the results are temporary.
“It was something that we were expecting when they were moving to Common Core,” Moore said. “We have been telling parents, don’t look at this like, ‘My child has lost academically.’ ”
Kevin M. Maxwell, schools chief in Prince George’s, said that because the tests do not align with the instruction, they are not a reflection of how well students are doing. “I don’t think these scores are a true measure of our students’ reading proficiency or their math,” he said.
The sharpest proficiency decline among elementary and middle school students in Prince George’s was in math, dropping 9.5 percentage points among elementary students and 11.6 percentage points among the older students. Statewide, elementary school students’ scores in math dropped 8.1 percentage points, and middle school student scores dipped 9.1 percentage points.
In Montgomery, 75.9 percent of elementary school students and 73.3 percent of middle school students scored proficient in math in 2014, a one-year drop of 8.6 percentage points and 4.6 percentage points, respectively.
“As we expected, Maryland School Assessment (MSA) scores declined in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and those declines were in line with what we saw across the state,” schools chief Joshua Starr said in a statement.
This year’s MSA results had no bearing on school accountability measures or principal and teacher evaluations. The results left open the question of how much districts had prepared students for the exams.
“We spent this year focusing on the future success of our students and not preparing them to take tests that are not aligned with what is being taught in the classroom,” Starr said.
Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.