Less than half of Maryland's kindergartners are ready to tackle the Common Core curriculum that's being rolled out in schools, state officials reported Tuesday.
Forty-seven percent of the students demonstrated knowledge in academic subjects such as language, literacy and math and developmental skills in areas such as physical well-being and social foundations.
The Common Core, a set of academic standards adopted in 45 states, was introduced in Maryland in pre-kindergarten three years ago.
The state last year revised its tool for assessing the ability of 4- and 5-year-olds to perform up to the standards. The findings released Tuesday are the first results of the new assessment.
The results are dramatically lower than in the past. Last year, 83 percent of kindergartners were "fully ready" to learn, according to the previous assessment, which was aligned to the state's old curriculum.
Officials blamed the drop on the new standards.
"Those numbers represent just how much different these standards are," said Rolf Grafwallner, the assistant state schools superintendent for early childhood development. "We saw a vast difference in the skills the children needed to have to be successful in kindergarten."
Education advocates said the state still should pay attention to longstanding disparities.
The findings released Tuesday showed that about 36 percent of children who quality for free or reduced-price lunch are ready to enter kindergarten. Fifty-seven percent of middle and upper-income students are ready.
"The good news is that we are now teaching to higher standards, and we have an assessment to higher standards," said Jason Botel, executive director of the advocacy group MarylandCAN. "We need to get the percentage of kids to increase, and we need to close the gaps among racial and economic lines."
Common Core changed expectations for even the youngest learners since it was implemented in Maryland in 2012.
Students will be expected to know the difference between informative/explanatory and opinion writing by the time they enter kindergarten, and to add and subtract fractions and comprehend, quote and compare literature and historical texts by the time they leave fifth grade.
As part of the assessment, kindergartners were asked to use discussions, reenactments, drawing or writing to respond to or retell a story in the appropriate sequence, and to use the names of two dimensional shapes — such as circle, triangle — when identifying objects.
Forty-eight percent of kindergartners in Baltimore were ready for the Common Core standards, officials reported. That's one point more than the state average, and on par with the more affluent Montgomery County.
Elsewhere in the region: 59 percent were ready in Carroll County, 57 percent in Howard County, 50 percent in Baltimore County, 48 percent in Harford County and 43 percent in Anne Arundel.
Baltimore officials credited the city's growing pre-kindergarten program and its early start in introducing Common Core to young learners.
The district spent more than $30 million to expand pre-kindergarten to a full-day program under former city schools CEO Andres Alonso, and rolled out a pre-kindergarten curriculum aligned to Common Core a year ahead of the rest of the state.
"These results make very clear that students who attend pre-k are more ready for kindergarten," schools CEO Gregory Thornton said in a statement. "But what's most important is that students who are ready to learn and succeed in kindergarten are laying the foundation for success in subsequent grades."
About 5,000 city students are enrolled in pre-kindergarten. About 59 percent of the city's kindergarten students tested this year have attended pre-kindergarten, and those students were the second-highest performers, after students who attended private pre-schools.
Grafwallner agreed that the city's pre-kindergarten program helped boost student scores.
"If you have a very strong, high-fidelity implementation of a pre-K curriculum, you have everything in sync," he said.
Thornton plans to expand the pre-kindergarten program by eight classrooms, or 160 students. The city also plans to add Judy Centers, which provide mental health and family counseling, to serve more than 200 students and their families.
Arlington Elementary/Middle School in Northwest Baltimore, which has a full-day pre-kindergarten program, is set to get another pre-kindergarten classroom and a Judy Center.
S. Sufrin, a kindergarten teacher at Arlington, said she expects the city's readiness scores will continue to rise.
Sufrin said she saw a clear difference this year between students who came from pre-kindergarten and those who did not. They could recognize sounds of words, knew how to order numbers and were focused during the exam.
"It was definitely rigorous," Sufrin said. "But I was really happy to see that because it gave the children a taste of what was coming."
Education advocates say the results show a need to offer full-day pre-kindergarten to low-income students statewide.
"We need to try to stop the achievement gap before it starts," said Bebe Verdery, education reform director for the ACLU of Maryland.
More than 67,000 students were tested. Grafwallner said officials have worked with teachers to revise the assessments for next year to cut time down by 20 percent, and a new reporting feature will allow teachers to get real-time reports of students' skill levels.
The Maryland State Education Association said the test was time-consuming, and was given to some students in September and others as late as December, a window the union said could result in different scores.
"We do have concerns about the validity of the results," MSEA President Betty Weller said.
The union wants a moratorium on testing students from pre-kindergarten through second grade.
"I don't know if we need a test like this one," she said. "And if we do, we need to make sure the results are valid and I am not sure we have done that."
State officials say this year's results reflect a reset button for students' educational careers.
Just as the previous exam set a benchmark 12 years ago, Grafwallner said — in the first year, 49 percent of students were found to be ready — the new test is charting a new course.
"The bar has been raised, so that now, instead of eight of 10 kids jumping over that hurdle, we have five to jump over a higher bar," he said.
"We have harder gaps, and now the work is going to start to turn the curve like we did 12 years ago."