Smaller rise in test scores for Maryland students

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Math and reading scores for Maryland elementary and middle school students who were already meeting basic expectations improved this year, but the worst-performing students posted smaller gains than in previous years, according to test results released Tuesday.

Statewide averages on the Maryland School Assessment exams improved modestly in every category except elementary school reading, which dropped slightly. The results represent a leveling-off of sorts for the state, which had been posting bigger gains for several years.

Nearly 363,000 students took the exams, which will be rewritten to conform to new, voluntary national standards for math and reading that the Maryland State Board of Education adopted this spring.

Middle school students posted the largest overall gains; 82.8 percent of them were proficient in reading, up from 81.8 percent in 2009. Similarly, 72.6 percent of middle school students were proficient in math this year, up from 71.2 percent last year.

Math proficiencies for elementary school students increased less than a percentage point, and reading scores were down one-tenth of a percentage point.

State education officials said one reason for the smaller gains is that the easy improvements had already been made.

"It's very difficult to make huge increments of progress when you're that high," said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. She added that the spate of weather-related closures this winter also may have impacted scores. The state has embarked on a reform program that will tie teacher evaluations to student performance, among other things.

D.C. students also posted mixed results on standardized tests this year after recent years of gains. Results released last week showed that scores for elementary students were down, while those of middle and high school students rose modestly.

In Maryland, the percentage of students designated as "advanced," the highest possible category, in reading increased several percentage points in most grades from third through eighth, meaning that students who were already doing adequately by state measures showed improvement. Eighth-graders showed the biggest gains, with 44.8 percent designated as advanced, up from 36.9 percent in 2009.

As in past years, poorer urban, rural and minority-dominated school systems lagged behind their wealthier suburban counterparts, with Montgomery County students posting relatively strong results across most categories while Prince George's County ranked near the bottom of the state's 24 school systems.

The achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and white students persisted even as it has narrowed in the last decade. Statewide, 78.1 percent of black elementary students were proficient in math, compared with 93 percent of white students. In 2003, the gap was more than twice that.

The percentage of Montgomery middle school students who were proficient in reading and math increased slightly, as did the percentage of elementary students proficient in math. The number of elementary students rated proficient in reading dropped slightly to 90.5 percent.

In Prince George's County, scores were up for both elementary and middle school students, with elementary math gaining the most -- 77.5 percent of students were rated proficient this year, up from 75.1 percent last year -- but overall scores remained among the lowest in the state. Just 41.1 percent of Prince George's eighth-graders were proficient in math, ranking ahead of only Baltimore.

More schools statewide failed to meet performance goals this year than last, attributable in large part to an annual rise in the benchmarks as mandated by the No Child Left Behind law. According to that law, by 2014 all students must be proficient in math and reading, a goal that many educators and lawmakers say is unrealistic.

An overhaul of the law, proposed in March by President Obama, would clamp down on the lowest-performing schools but would free better-performing schools from some of the consequences of not meeting annual goals.

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