Maryland’s scores on national reading and math tests dropped significantly and showed some of the largest declines in the nation in 2015, as the state included more students with disabilities and English-language learners than it had in previous years.
The state-level results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released Wednesday, indicate that Maryland was the only state that had declines in scores on all four tests — in reading and math in fourth grade and eighth grade. Maryland’s scores dipped three to nine points on each test.
Despite the precipitous drop, state officials said Maryland students remain above the national average in most areas, noting that overall national scores also took a hit this year.
“I think the good news for Maryland is we were a lot more inclusive,” said Jack R. Smith, interim state school superintendent, who attributed some of the decline to data skewed by a prior exclusion of students who generally perform more poorly. Smith said other factors were involved, too. “It’s very concerning, and it poses a lot of questions that we as educators need to consider,” he said.
The inclusion of more special-education and English-language learners in 2015 brought Maryland in line with other states after it previously led the nation in excluding students from the NAEP. In 2013, those exclusions gave Maryland a significant boost.
Nationally, math scores dropped for the first time since the tests were administered in the early 1990s. Eighth-grade reading scores also fell, and fourth-grade reading performance was stagnant. Virginia’s scores were flat in 2015, bucking the trend.
The District offered a bright spot in the otherwise bleak results, as one of just two jurisdictions that posted gains on two tests. Fourth-graders in the District made significant strides, climbing three points on the national math test and seven points on the reading test. Scores for eighth-graders, which saw a bump in 2013, stayed relatively flat in 2015.
Achievement gaps based on race in the city remain vast, but they are narrowing citywide. In 2015, 81 percent of white test takers scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading test, compared with 18 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students. A parallel report focused on progress in D.C. Public Schools showed that, for traditional public schools, such performance gaps have stayed about the same since 2002.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) used the state’s declining scores to swipe at his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, as the former two-term governor runs for the Democratic nomination for president.
Hogan accused the O’Malley administration of creating a “false sense of security” and doing a “major disservice” to Maryland parents and students by “purposefully” excluding students who would post lower scores.
“These scores reflect a level of transparency not seen in a long time and are a wake-up call for Maryland,” Hogan said in a statement.
Haley Morris, a spokeswoman for O’Malley’s campaign, cited his achievements on education, including increased funding and investment, and gains on state-level tests. “Governor O’Malley made education a priority, and he made record investments in schools at all levels,” Morris said. “Under his leadership, Maryland schools were ranked the best in the country five years in a row, graduation rates went up, and pre-K was expanded.”
O’Malley’s campaign also referred questions to Jared Billings, a former policy adviser, who said that exclusion decisions were made on the local level and that O’Malley’s administration encouraged those jurisdictions to administer the test more broadly.
“There was no administration policy of exclusions,” Billings said. “In fact, it was the opposite.”
Hogan said the data should lead to an “open, honest discussion about education policy” and a debate on how to close the state’s achievement gap.
Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the state has worked closely with the NAEP and local school systems to address including students with disabilities and English learners.
In 2013, Maryland excluded 12.6 percent of students in fourth-grade reading, compared with 3.6 percent in 2015, the state said. Similarly, the exclusion rate of 9.2 percent for eighth-grade reading in 2013 dipped to 4.8 percent in 2015.
“We’re gratified that those students are being tested,” Reinhard said. “They should be tested.”
While many states, including Maryland, and the District adopted new standardized tests last school year that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards, many people are looking more closely at the NAEP this year.
In the District, the uptick in elementary scores on the national test offered a quick lift after a sobering first look Tuesday at results of its new Common Core-aligned test, known as PARCC.
The results showed that 10 percent of District students who took a new geometry test and 25 percent who took a new high school English test were proficient.
Maryland also released scores for the new high school PARCC tests showing that 40 percent of students taking the English 10 exam, 31 percent taking the Algebra 1 exam and 20 percent taking the Algebra 2 exam met the new proficiency levels.
Virginia did not adopt the Common Core and did not administer the PARCC test.
On the NAEP, fourth-graders from D.C. Public Schools made larger gains than those in charter schools in 2015, climbing eight points since 2013 in reading. They also caught up to the large-city average score for the first time, according to a parallel report on urban school districts. The school district’s fourth-graders also climbed four points in math.
“I am super-thrilled, over-the-moon, can’t-sit-in-my-seat excited about the fourth-grade reading and math scores,” D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said.
She attributed the gains to improved professional development, better academic standards, the city’s hefty investment in early-childhood education, and consistency in leadership and strategy.
The city is undergoing demographic changes, some spurred by reforms of the public schools. Enrollment in public schools has increased for seven consecutive years after decades of declines. In D.C. Public Schools, white students who took the fourth-grade tests increased from 13 percent to 16 percent of the total between 2013 and 2015, and African American students dropped from 67 percent to 64 percent.
Henderson said demographic changes do not have an impact.
“We’re seeing success not just with our white kids, but with our black kids and our low-income kids, too,” she said.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board reported smaller gains in fourth grade — a two-point improvement in math and a four-point increase in reading.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said the results offer “a nice counterpoint to the PARCC results” and the benefit of a long-term view. “It shows that our schools have been steadily getting better,” he said.
Ovetta Wiggins and John Wagner contributed to this report.