Results released last week showed Baltimore County public schools made slight improvements in students' performance in reading and mathematics as measured by the annual Maryland School Assessments.

Students in third through eighth grade take the mandatory MSA exams in the spring every year.

The 90-minute exams include questions requiring multiple choice and written responses and are taken over a four-day period, two days for math and two for reading, according to the Maryland Department of Education's website.

The students' results are ranked in the categories of basic, proficient and advanced.

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The totals of those scoring as proficient or advanced are combined to show the percentage of students in a particular class who passed.

In Baltimore County, 74 percent of the county's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders scored as proficient or advanced in mathematics compared with 72.5 percent last year.

But in reading, 81.7 percent of those students scored as proficient or advanced compared with 82.9 percent last year.

"On a state-wide basis, middle-school scores are down from last year," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.

He said some of the challenges facing students in middle school include having to change classes more often, a disruption of their regular social circles and facing more difficult classes, such as introduction to algebra.

Gene Schaffer, chairman of the education department at theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County, said subjects that were taught on the high school level 40 years ago are now being taught in middle school.

He said that accelerated approach came about nationally after the realization in the 1980s that the United States had lagged significantly behind other countries when it came to teaching math and science.

Students at the two middle schools that draw from the Arbutus area showed some improvement over their counterparts from the year before.

But the percentage of the eighth-grade class in 2012 that passed was lower than that of the seventh-grade class in 2011, which was lower than that of the sixth-grade class in 2010.

"It's tough being in middle school because it's a time of enormous growth, intellectually, physically," Schaffer said. "Just growing up is an enormous challenge. You're going through a lot of changes."

The Philadelphia native, who has been at UMBC for 11 years, said that growth does mean some advantages for middle school students.

"They are able to think about, and perceive, lots of things," he said. "They can organize large groups of data."

A father of three, the youngest now a junior in college, Schaffer said middle-school students were the group he taught the most and he enjoyed teaching.

"But for the kids themselves, it's a very stressful time," he said. "They're making an enormous developmental leap.

"Everybody is maturing at different rates," he said. "Kids are now very aware of each other."

He said the specific challenge to teaching sixth, seventh and eighth has only recently been recognized in Maryland. Teachers in Maryland are now trained for teaching in that particular field and certified by the state to teach those age groups.