By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Maryland elementary and middle school students posted further gains on state tests of reading and math skills this year, state officials said Tuesday, but troubling pockets of low achievement remain in a state whose educational system is considered among the best in the nation.
Statewide average scores on the Maryland School Assessment tests improved in all categories, continuing a trend in recent years on the exams, which are given to students in third through eighth grade. The largest gains were recorded in middle school, which is considered encouraging because that is where many students begin to struggle academically.
Last year, 78.7 percent of Maryland middle school students showed proficiency in reading, and 69 percent met the standard in math. This year, 81.8 percent were proficient in reading, and 71.2 percent made the grade in math.
Elementary school scores rose by a smaller amount, with proficiency levels edging up by a little less than one percentage point in both reading and math.
The test scores are among the reasons Maryland schools received high marks this year from evaluators such as the Education Week trade newspaper. The state's standardized curriculum and its strong financial support of schools are also cited favorably.
In the District, less than half of elementary and middle school students showed proficiency in reading and math, according to results of the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams released last week. Virginia's test scores are scheduled to be released next month.
In Maryland, relatively poor urban, rural and minority-dominated school systems continue to lag behind the state's wealthier suburbs.
Montgomery County continued to fare strongly in most categories, although 12 of the county's 38 middle schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress," a yardstick under the federal No Child Left Behind law that is used to measure schools in a variety of ways.
Three of the 12 middle schools would have met state requirements were it not for the introduction of a modified Maryland School Assessment test taken by some special education students, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast wrote in a letter to school board members. In previous years, those students were simply considered proficient. Proficiency rates on the new exam were low, with far fewer than half the special-needs students who took it meeting the standard.
At several other Montgomery middle schools, the scores of Hispanic students or others with limited English proficiency failed to show adequate yearly progress.
The Baltimore and Prince George's County school systems showed overall improvement but still ranked at the bottom among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions in most categories. Fewer than half of Baltimore middle-schoolers showed proficiency in math. Prince George's, which had a slight decline in that area, didn't do much better. Only 54.5 percent of its middle school students made the grade in math.
"We do think they're making progress in catching up, but they do have a ways to go," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
One bright spot in Prince George's was its score in middle school reading, which increased by four percentage points, from 67.3 percent proficient to 71.3 percent.
The county is in the process of converting some schools to run from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, a change intended to stop a slide in performance attributed to the move from elementary schools to larger, less controlled middle schools.
Kate Walsh, a member of the state school board, asked whether the optimistic reports from state officials could be taken seriously in light of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which placed Maryland in the middle of the pack on some measures of achievement. "I'm not sure that we can assure the public that this . . . proficiency means anything," she said.
State officials largely dismissed the national exam's results, saying that it was given to only about 2,500 Maryland students and was not taken as seriously by teachers as the state exam. The state exam was given to 364,000 students, and failure has serious consequences for schools and teachers.
State data showed the achievement gap between black and white students continuing to close. On the 2003 elementary school math exam, 74 percent of white students showed proficiency, compared with 40.9 percent of black students -- a gap of 33.1 percentage points. This year, 91.9 percent of white students and 76 percent of black students achieved proficiency, a difference of 15.9 percentage points.
But some state school board members asked why Maryland's gap is higher than neighboring Virginia's, according to a federal study released last week.
Howard and Calvert counties posted strong scores. Proficiency rates exceeded 90 percent in reading in both counties and in elementary school math in Calvert. Howard students just missed 90 percent in elementary school math. In middle school math, 86.9 percent of Howard students and 83.5 percent of Calvert students showed proficiency.