Md. Students' Test Scores Rise in Math And Reading

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Maryland elementary and middle school students showed continued steady gains in state reading and math tests this year, with both Prince George's and Montgomery counties posting solid improvements from 2006 in many grade levels, according to exam results state educators will release today.

Scores also generally improved in other jurisdictions in the Washington area, including Anne Arundel, Frederick, Calvert, St. Mary's and Charles counties. There were small declines in several categories for Howard County, one of the state's top school systems.

State officials said all 24 school systems earned better scores on the Maryland School Assessments, a set of tests for third- through eighth-graders in reading and math. They also said the results showed a continued closing of the "achievement gap," the imbalance in test scores among students of different races, and students with limited English skills did noticeably better.

The results extend a trend of slow but steady improvement since the tests began in 2003. State officials said it is difficult for improvements to continue at a rapid pace, especially in school systems such as those in Howard, Calvert and Montgomery, where 80 to 90 percent of students often already show proficiency.

The most dramatic improvements were in sixth grade, in which the percentage of students earning proficiency or advanced scores in math increased 6.2 percentage points, and the share showing proficiency in reading increased 4.8 points.

Prince George's sixth-graders narrowed the gap with the state average in both categories, with the portion of students showing proficiency in math increasing 10.8 percentage points and rising 7.6 points in reading.

Although Prince George's students are still scoring below state averages -- for example, 64.5 percent of Prince George's fifth-graders showed proficiency on the math test, compared with a state average of 78.3 percent -- the county's officials were happy to see the difference closing in several areas.

"We're extremely, extremely pleased," said John E. Deasy, the Prince George's superintendent, who took over the struggling district in May 2006. "It shows we can do it, and now we're doing it for all, in every place. It shows that we're knowing how to make very strategic moves in the county."

Deasy attributed the improvements to greater commitment by students, teachers and parents, as well as new initiatives, such as a program in "algebraic thinking" that helped boost math test scores.

Maryland students did slightly worse on tests of third-grade math and seventh-grade reading. Among Howard seventh-graders, the percentage of students achieving proficiency dropped by about two points, from 86.8 percent in 2006 to 84.6 percent this year in reading, and from 81 percent to 79.2 percent in math.

"Overall, our performance is still extremely high," said Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for Howard schools. "I think what sometimes people forget is that here in Howard County, we have students who are underachieving as well."

Because the tests help determine whether schools meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, they have become the primary measure of the success of districts and individual schools. As the law stands, all students must show proficiency on the tests by 2014. Schools that fail to show adequate progress toward that goal can be ordered to make changes to their staffing and curriculum, and the state can take over the management of schools that continue to fail the tests.

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