Md. Test Scores Rise but Near Plateau

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Student achievement gains in Maryland public schools have slowed after an initial surge in reading and mathematics test scores, signaling that educators now face a much stiffer challenge to meet the ambitious goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Scores for the 2006 Maryland School Assessments that were made public yesterday show gains statewide for the third straight year, including in school systems in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and elsewhere in the Washington area. Racial and ethnic achievement gaps also narrowed slightly in some grades.

But the overall pace of growth diminished sharply, a trend seen in most elementary and middle grades tested.

In third grade, 78 percent of students tested this year in reading and 79 percent tested in math reached at least proficiency -- the state's term for grade-level performance. Three years ago, 58 percent of third-graders met that standard in reading; 65 percent in math.

But the percentage-point increase in both subjects is tailing off. A 13-point jump in third-grade reading in 2004 was followed by gains of five points in 2005 and three points this year. Third-grade math gains were seven points in 2004, five points in 2005 and two points this year.

With one exception -- a slight acceleration of growth in seventh-grade reading scores -- similar patterns emerged in grades four through eight. Some trend lines appear to be nearing a plateau. State officials said the data show that many school systems face a more difficult climb to meet federal standards.

"The ability to make large gains when you're doing better is harder, much harder," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "The low-hanging fruit, so to speak, is easier initially."

Experts say scores tend to rise across the board in the first years of a new statewide test, as students and teachers learn the exam format. "Once those things are in place, now the growth is going to be more modest," said Duane Arbogast, a testing specialist with Anne Arundel County schools. "You're not going to see huge drops, either. Nothing is going to be very large."

But the rate of growth in test scores is critical to whether Maryland -- or any state -- can comply with the federal law. Enacted in 2002, No Child Left Behind envisions that all students from grades three through eight will perform at grade level by 2014.

Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress toward that goal face sanctions, up to the threat of state takeover.

To gauge schools, the state tested about 400,000 students in March from third through eighth grade. Virginia and D.C. public schools gave standardized tests later in the spring, with results expected in August.

Among Maryland's 24 systems, the urgency for higher scores is especially acute in Prince George's. Seventy-five county schools are rated in need of improvement, a total exceeded only in urban Baltimore.

Yesterday, Prince George's schools chief John E. Deasy estimated that the needs-improvement total would grow to about 85 after the state finishes analyzing test scores. That's more than 40 percent of roughly 200 schools in the county.

Yet the Prince George's scores rose for a third straight year, and the rate of growth was higher than the state average.

"While we celebrate these successes, we need to escalate the gains," Deasy said. He said some schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students -- including five that are expected to escape the needs-improvement list -- offer a model for dramatic improvement. "It can happen anywhere," he said. Deasy spoke by telephone as he was headed into a Maryland State Board of Education meeting in Baltimore to discuss strategy for chronically underperforming schools.

In Montgomery, educators face what might be called the 90-percent barrier in elementary schools. More than eight out of 10 students in grades three through five in the county showed proficiency or better in reading and math. St. Mary's County had similar results. Improvement next year may be a tall order.

But Howard, Calvert and Anne Arundel counties have shown that it can be done. More than 90 percent of Anne Arundel fourth-graders scored at least proficient in math. Howard fourth-graders have achieved the feat in reading three years in a row. Calvert's third- and fourth-graders this year topped the 90 percent mark in reading and math.

Middle school remains a puzzle for many educators. Statewide, about 45 percent of eighth-graders and 40 percent of seventh-graders failed to show math proficiency. Math tests for those two grades perennially produce the state's lowest scores.

Montgomery officials have focused intensely on middle schools in the past year, but their efforts so far have yielded few gains. For the most part, middle school reading scores stagnated this year. Math scores rose modestly. Among the county's eighth-graders, about a quarter fell short of proficiency in reading and about a third in math.

State efforts to reduce educational disparities had mixed results. Black and Hispanic students continued to score well below their white and Asian American counterparts, with gaps of about 20 percentage points in third- and fifth-grade reading proficiency and about 30 points in eighth-grade reading. About half of black eighth-graders scored below grade level in reading; one out of five white eighth-graders scored that low.

But state charts posted at show some narrowing of racial and ethnic achievement gaps in elementary grades. In addition, the state reported that students with disabilities or limited English skills and students from high-poverty families narrowed some gaps.

About 57 percent of students receiving special education services who took the third-grade reading test showed proficiency or better, up from 25 percent in 2003. This year's special-ed performance in third-grade reading was nearly as strong as the results that regular education students posted three years ago. Their 2003 proficiency rate in third-grade reading was 62 percent.

Staff writers Lori Aratani, Daniel de Vise and William Wan contributed to this report.

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