After being ranked first in the nation for education for more than a decade, Maryland is seeing its scores in a key national test drop for fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math.
The state's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment — also known as the "Nation's Report Card" — put Maryland student achievement in the middle of the pack of states nationwide.
In results released Wednesday, Maryland was the only state to have falling scores in both subjects in both grades tested.
Baltimore City, whose scores were released along with 20 other urban school districts, also had disappointing results. After years of improved performance on the national exams, the city saw across-the-board declines. The largest drops in the city were in average scores for fourth-grade math, and eighth-grade reading; both falling by eight points.
NAEP, considered the most reliable long-term measure of achievement, are given to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country every two years.
Maryland had been making slow, steady progress for nearly the past two decades on the tests — until this year. The results show average reading scores in fourth grade reading dipped to levels of a decade ago and eighth grade scores declined as well.
Two years ago, 45 percent of Maryland fourth-graders passed the reading test. This year, that fell to 37 percent.
Math scores dropped from a 47 percent pass rate to a 40 percent pass rate this year.
The eighth-grade drops were not as dramatic, and the state still performed better than the national average in many areas.
The Maryland declines in NAEP come a day after state officials saw lower-than-expected results in the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments. The PARCC tests were administered for the first time last school year, and the results released Tuesday showed that a majority of high school students failed to reach standards for reading and algebra.
Prior to PARCC, the NAEP assessment was considered the most rigorous and reliable gauge of their academic performance.
Nationally, average NAEP scores were also lackluster, with average math scores declining slightly among fourth- and eighth-graders, and in eighth-grade reading. Average fourth-grade reading scores were flat. Forty percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored proficient on the NAEP math exam. In reading, 36 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient.
NAEP officials said although declines were not expected, particularly in math, they were not cause for alarm. Officials emphasized students' growth since the 1990s.
"We're trying not to read too much into the declines at this point," said Peggy G. Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the exam. "One downturn does not a trend make."
Other officials echoed the same sentiment.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted to Maryland and Baltimore's large declines, but said the drops were "good news" because they reflected the state's efforts to be more inclusive of certain populations — such as students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
In 2013, Maryland's scores were found to be inflated after it was determined that the state excluded high percentages of special education students from the reading exam. For example, 66 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities were excluded in the reading test in 2013, far higher than the national rate of 16 percent.
This year, state officials reported an exclusion rate of 3.6 percent in fourth-grade reading compared with 12.6 percent in 2013; and only 4.7 percent of eighth graders were excluded, down from 9.2 percent in 2013.
"I'm proud of their commitment to equity and inclusion," Duncan said. "They should be commended for that, not criticized."
Last year, NAEP officials said the exclusion of students with disabilities likely inflated the state's scores by more than seven points.
Maryland saw a significant drop in performance among white students, which also contributed greatly to its declines, NAEP officials said.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents urban districts, said he believed Baltimore city's scores reflected the state's performance, including the inclusion of more special education students. He said he believed the city's results are a "reason for vigilance, but not alarm."
"The numbers looks dramatic, but I don't think the facts behind them are inexplicable," he said. "It just sets a new foundation from which we now measure your progress."
Since 2009, Baltimore has been among large, urban school districts across the country that participated in the voluntary reporting of NAEP scores, called the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).
Former Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso decided to have the district join TUDA so city students could be measured against peers in districts of similar size and demographics.
Since then, the district has noted gains or held steady in reading and math, though it has consistently ranked in the bottom third in performance with Detroit and Cleveland.
This year, that trend remained — while cities once in Baltimore's company, such as Washington D.C., posted significant gains. Even Cleveland saw increases, including a 7-point jump in fourth-grade reading.
The eighth-grade reading score decline this year was a stark reversal from the 2013 scores, when eighth-graders noted one of the most significant increases of all of the cities that participated. That year, the percentage of eighth-graders considered proficient in reading was 16 percent; this year that percentage dropped to 13.
And 11 percent of the city's fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading this year, down from 14 percent in 2013.
In math, fourth-graders noted an 8-point drop in average math scores, with 12 percent scoring proficient. Eighth-grade math scores saw a drop of 5 points, not considered statistically significant, and 12 percent were proficient.
In 2013, 19 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient in math, and 13 percent of eighth-graders did.
Gov. Larry Hogan referenced the administration of former Gov. Martin O'Malley, now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, and called the new NAEP results the "final report card of the previous administration's performance on education and it's not good."
The Republican governor noted the issue of excluding some students in previous years' tests, and said, "By misleading the public and purposefully excluding students who would lower scores, a false sense of security was created and a major disservice was done to the state and most importantly to our parents and students."
The new scores, Hogan said, "reflect a level of transparency not seen in a long time and are a wake-up call for Maryland. It is time we had an open, honest discussion about education policy in our state and begin to close the achievement gaps."