Student test scores have increased significantly across Maryland this year, but don't pop the champagne corks just yet.

Maryland switched tests last year, and test scores generally increase during the first few years of the change because teachers do a better job adjusting their instruction to the new test.

The state also set easier passing standards so that double the percentage of students were deemed "proficient" under the new state tests than were deemed so under the old tests. So "improvements" in test scores may be largely an illusion.

The lowered standards are one part of Maryland's efforts to evade the federal No Child Left Behind Act. To the extent that the federal law has any consequences, they are tied to persistent failure of a school or school district to make "adequate yearly progress" on state tests. By making the tests easier, Maryland has reduced the amount of progress schools and districts have to make to meet the requirements of the federal law.

Maryland also is taking advantage of other loopholes in the law's "adequate yearly progress" requirement. For example, it wants to count students who are poor and disabled as poor but not disabled. This means the "disabled" population will consist only of better-off students who generally score better on tests. Maryland further hopes to get an exclusion for student subgroups that don't make up 15 percent of a given district's population. So, if 14 percent of a district's students are poor, the district will not be held accountable for educating students in that group.

These actions undermine a positive aspect of No Child Left Behind -- it spotlights schools where student performance is stagnating or that are failing to educate disadvantaged or disabled children.

Of course, if reporting bad outcomes were enough, Maryland schools already would have made significant improvements in achievement and come close to eliminating racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Instead, after more than 10 years of reporting test results prior to the No Child Left Behind Act, scores in Maryland have hit a plateau, achievement gaps are as wide as ever and the worst schools have made little or no progress even after being identified as failing.

The real issue is whether schools will change the quality and quantity of instruction, particularly for students who aren't doing well. This question is particularly important because school districts are about to receive a huge infusion of state funding under the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, commonly called the Thornton Act. This act does not require that the increased funds be spent on at-risk students. Indeed, it eliminated many programs for low-achieving schools and at-risk students. Already, school systems are taking money from high-needs schools and using increased state funds for general operating expenses. For example, in one large system, high-poverty schools are losing $13.9 million next year, while the system is gaining $18.1 million because of its low-income population.

The Thornton Act does require that every school system develop a five-year master plan. But studies have shown that school systems and schools often lack the capacity to identify and implement solutions to the root causes of low achievement and achievement gaps.

The result is that priorities are not based on research, budgets are not aligned with strategic plans and the plans do not reflect the data on what is working and what isn't. Fundamental issues, including principal leadership, staff recruitment and retention and improving the quality and quantity of instruction, go unaddressed.

The recent financial difficulties of the Baltimore City Public School System are an example of the consequences of the failure to set priorities, align the strategic plan with the budget and monitor the implementation of initiatives.

School systems and schools in Maryland need intensive support with plans and budgets that lead to improved outcomes for all children, particularly those at risk of academic failure.

Maryland must verify that increased state funds for at-risk students are paying for increased services. It's one thing to give districts flexibility in strategies to use with at-risk students; it's another to allow districts to spend the money meant for at-risk students on general operating expenses.

The No Child Left Behind Act creates some helpful pressure for progress if states aren't allowed to gut its requirements. Maryland's Thornton Act provides extra resources to help at-risk students if the state works with districts to channel the money into effective programs. However, notwithstanding recent increases in test scores, Maryland's schools have a long way to go before they can provide a rigorous education to every student.

-- Matthew H. Joseph

has worked on school reform for the Abell Foundation, Advocates for Children and Youth and, most recently,

the Baltimore County executive.

matthewjoseph@comcast.net