November 25, 2013

LET’S NOT sugarcoat it: Maryland schools have artificially inflated their performance on a key standardized reading test by excusing students with learning disabilities and weak English skills from the exam. The policy is so out of whack with the rest of the nation that Maryland schools are excusing students from the test at a rate five times higher than the national average and more than double that of any other state.

The effect has been to drive up Maryland’s reading scores and rankings in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test known as “the nation’s report card” that is administered in odd-numbered years to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders.

As The Post’s Lyndsey Layton reported, if Maryland had included its learning-disabled students and English learners among the test-takers, it would have dropped from second place to 11th among fourth-graders nationally and from sixth place to 12th place among eighth-graders.

Maryland officials explain that they provide special accommodations, including allowing questions to be read aloud, for students with learning disabilities or weak English skills in state standardized tests. Since the national exam does not permit such accommodations, state officials say they are justified in excusing students from taking it.

The argument is bogus. The read-aloud rule is designed to ensure that no individual is punished for poor performance on state tests that results from disabilities or weak English skills. But there is no risk of that with the national test, since it produces no results for individual students, schools or even school districts. The results provide only state rankings.

Moreover, no other state uses such a quasi-legal justification to exclude so many students from the national test. Maryland officials cannot cite any legal opinion or document to support their policy.

In a memo written last year, shortly before the test was administered, state Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery essentially gave a green light to local school officials to excuse students on this flimsy basis. To be certain they got the message, she emphasized that schools should be sure to cull their lists of student test-takers before national testing officials appeared at the schools for a pre-test visit.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the man he has endorsed to succeed him, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, are fond of boasting that Maryland’s schools are ranked No. 1 in the nation. They base this assertion on an annual survey by the magazine Education Week, in which the state has come out on top for several years running.

At best, it’s a facile ranking and an empty political claim. While Maryland has many excellent schools, it also has plenty that are mediocre and poor. And by a number of widely accepted measures — SAT scores, ACT scores, four-year graduation rates and, we would argue, a fair reading of national reading scores — Maryland is quite a distance from No. 1.

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