Nearly 200 of Maryland's 1,430 public schools have failed to meet state performance requirements on reading and math tests, but that represents substantial improvement from a year ago, officials said yesterday.
Last year, when the Maryland School Assessments were given for the first time to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, more than 500 schools failed to meet the state-imposed standards.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick attributed the gains, especially among black and Hispanic students, to teachers and students becoming familiar with the tests and to a voluntary state curriculum introduced this year.
New, less stringent rules for assessing the performance of subgroups of students, such as those who speak limited English, also played a part in the improvement, Grasmick said. And she cautioned that Maryland has a long way to go before it can come close to meeting standards that will get tougher every year.
"What was satisfactory this year," she said, "is not going to be satisfactory next year."
Among Maryland counties in the Washington area, Prince George's had the most public schools that fell short of the performance requirements this year -- 55 -- while Calvert and Charles, with substantially fewer schools than Prince George's, had the least -- two each. Nineteen of Montgomery's schools also fell short, primarily because of low scores among special education students.
The two-year-old No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all children be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. Public schools are judged not just as a whole, but in terms of student subgroups that include racial and ethnic minorities, low-income children, those in special education and students who speak limited English.
Maryland's results are based on standardized tests in reading and math that third-, fifth- and eighth-graders took in the spring, as well as a 10th-grade reading test. Students in grades 4, 6, and 7 also took the tests, but their scores will not count toward school performance this year, officials said, because they took the Maryland School Assessments for the first time.
Based on the test scores, which were announced this month, students were ranked as basic, proficient and advanced. A student had to rate at least proficient to pass each test.
In response to No Child Left Behind, Maryland has required that an increasing percentage of its students in each subgroup pass the test for a school to be considered successful. If just one subgroup fails, the entire school fails.
For example, Grasmick said yesterday, many schools this year failed to meet state requirements in just one area: special education. That happened at two schools in St. Mary's County, where the performance of one or two disabled students on the reading test resulted in the entire school missing the state standards.
"It's a signal we need to continue moving forward, strengthening the quality of instruction, but it's not a signal that there needs to be a complete overhaul," said Patricia Richardson, superintendent of St. Mary's schools. "We all have to be very careful of not jumping to the wrong conclusions."
Montgomery faces a similar situation: 17 schools missed state targets because of the performance of special education students.
"The challenge is to match the rigor with the needs of the child," said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "Sometimes a structured test is not the best way to measure that child's growth," given the challenges faced by special education students, whose disabilities can range from dyslexia to severe mental retardation.
There are no consequences for a school that misses performance targets in a single year, but schools that fail to meet state targets two years in a row for any subgroup are labeled "in need of improvement" and may have to provide tutoring services for students and allow them to transfer to better-performing schools. If a school continues to do poorly, it could eventually face state takeover.
No districts in the Washington area saw all of its schools meet state targets this year. Of the 84 Maryland schools deemed "in need of improvement" for the first time this year, Prince George's accounts for 35. Montgomery has the second-highest number, with nine schools, and Anne Arundel County has five.
Prince George's officials had some reason to celebrate when the scores came out earlier this month, including a nearly 16 percentage point spike in the performance of third-graders in reading. Scores among the county's black and Hispanic students also rose in all grade levels in reading and math.
But Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby said the number of schools still falling short of state standards is a reminder that much more progress is needed. "This is a journey for us," he said.
There was good news yesterday, with several counties learning that their schools made substantial gains for two consecutive years and are no longer considered by the state as needing improvement. All six schools in Howard County that had been performing below standards met state targets, officials said, as did three schools in Anne Arundel and three in Montgomery.
Changes to the federal law played a part in the improvements, according to Grasmick. Earlier this year, Bush administration officials announced that students who speak limited English would be counted as part of that subgroup for two years after their language skills improved. The move was a response to criticism that schools would never receive credit for helping those students if they were no longer counted as part of the subgroup once they became proficient in English.
Fewer schools, especially in Montgomery, failed to meet state targets in the limited-English subgroup this year. But Grasmick said changes to the law alone do not account for the gains. "I think our schools and our school systems are much more serious. . . . I think there's much more attention to the instructional program."
Maryland is negotiating with the Department of Education to change the way it calculates school performance at both the local and state levels. Under the current formula, almost all of the state's 24 school districts would not meet the targets, said Ronald Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent. More modifications are expected by next year.
"If we don't add these changes, we anticipate lots of schools not making improvement in '05," he said in an earlier interview. "If we don't have some relief here, our numbers are going to get very high."
A complete list of scores, broken by down by school, is available on the Web site of the Maryland Department of Education at www.mdreportcard.org.
Staff writers Nancy Trejos, Linda Perlstein and Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.