Anne Arundel County students in every elementary grade posted marks of at least 90 percent in math and reading on the Maryland School Assessments, according to results released Tuesday.
School officials lauded the districts' gains in three of the four overall assessment categories and the fact that in all four categories, the percentage of Anne Arundel students passing the tests exceeded state scores by at least 4.4 points.
"Overall we're pleased with the growth we're seeing," said Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin Maxwell. "We believe that our schools are continuing in the right direction. Our teachers and support folks, our principals, our parents and our students are all working very hard, and we believe the progress is a result of their work and an indicator that they're going to continue to grow and be more successful."
Many of the deficiencies in Anne Arundel were in reading.
Countywide, 86.5 percent of middle school students earned passing scores in reading, down from 87.4 percent the previous year.
"Middle and elementary school reading are two places where we really need to increase our focus," Maxwell said.
In middle school math, 82 percent of students passed, up from 78.4 percent the previous year.
Among elementary school students, 93.2 percent passed reading, up from 92.3 percent the previous year. In math, 93.8 percent passed, up from 92 percent.
Baltimore City's overall scores remained essentially flat from last year, when the system noted the first backslide in years, and students are now performing below the level they were two years ago.
In contrast to last year, when dozens of schools' scores plummeted 20 to 30 percentage points as the system heightened test security for the first time, the district noted fewer wild fluctuations in year-over-year scores. Sixteen schools are still under investigation for testing improprieties.
This year, the system also deployed independent monitors to every school, and several schools experienced notable improvements. The gains and drops all fell within a range of 10 percentage points or less.
"There is no question that these [scores] are legitimate," city schools CEO Andrés Alonso said during a news conference Tuesday.
About 67 percent of students passed in reading, a decline of roughly 2 percentage points from last year. The proportion of students who scored proficient or advanced in math rose slightly, by 2 percentage points, to 63 percent.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that while the system's progress shows the fruits of reforms, the scores were a "clear reminder that we cannot take our foot off the pedal."
City school officials said the system will need to assess what is lagging in third-grade reading — a formative point in students' literacy development — particularly when the district's pre-kindergarten program is expanding. City officials also said that the scores have supported the system's focus on professional development around literacy.
School officials said the scores reflect their choices to devote the most time and resources in the last year.
A Saturday school program that Alonso created last year after the system's 2011 math decline focused on math, as have the last two years of summer school. This year, however, summer school has a literacy focus.
The schools chief said the 83 schools that hosted a math Saturday school academy performed nearly 5 percentage points higher, while those that did not have the extended time decreased slightly.
Officials celebrated the gains achieved by fifth- and eighth-graders in math, which they attributed not only to the additional programming but to a turning point in instruction, as the district prepares to embark on more rigorous standards.
"The rigor that is coming is what keeps me up at night," he said. "Everybody needs to be conscious of where the gaps are, and how to move every kid in our schools."
—Erica L. Green
Baltimore County posted gains on the MSAs, although reading scores in seventh and eighth grade declined slightly. Ninety percent of elementary students passed the test in reading and math, higher than the state average.
The county's middle school students gained 2 points in math, moving from 72.5 percent to 74 percent.
School Superintendent Dallas Dance looked closely at the ways different groups of students — such as special education, minority and low-income students — performed. In elementary grades, Dance said all the groups made progress in the past two years.
"Clearly progress is being made. We have done a good job narrowing the gap over the past two years, but we still have some work to do particularly at the middle school level," he said.
Dance said the special education students are still not performing well and he said it is that group "that gives me most pause."
Not much progress was seen at several middle schools that had been designated for a turnaround attempt last year. Some of the schools had seen a turnover in staff and leadership, lower class sizes and other interventions that were designed to improve student achievement.
In the first year, few of the schools showed much overall improvement, Dance said, raising questions about whether the system should continue to make similar changes to a new round of middle schools that had been targeted last year.
"I think we need to take a step back and look at the plans a little more deeply," he said, adding that though not all of the changes may be right, doing nothing would not be an option either.
Carroll County again posted some of the highest scores in the state, with more than 89 percent of students passing the tests in every category but eighth-grade math.
Carroll students also showed improvement from last year in every category except for fourth-grade math, where they nonetheless passed at a rate of 94.6 percent. The county showed significant progress in seventh-grade math, where the pass rate jumped from 81.3 percent to 89.7 percent. Even in eighth-grade math, the most difficult test for students statewide, Carroll improved about 5 percentage points to an 81.4 percent pass rate.
"We improved in pretty much every category," said Gregg Bricca, the county's director of research and accountability.
Under the state's new accountability system, adopted after it received a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind standards, nine of Carroll's 34 middle and elementary schools failed to meet their state goals in some category. Of those, seven missed in only one area, Bricca said, with math the consistent trouble spot in elementary schools and special education reading the culprit in middle schools.
With a new system of accountability in place, Carroll no longer has to pursue school improvement plans that went into place last year for three middle schools. But two of those schools, New Windsor Middle and Westminster East Middle, showed substantial progress in multiple categories. At New Windsor, for example, students jumped from a 68.3 percent pass rate in seventh-grade math to a 90.7 percent pass rate. Westminster East Middle, meanwhile, produced double-digit gains in both seventh- and eighth-grade math.
Bricca said the scrutiny helped teachers to "sharpen their tools, and that focus shows in the numbers."
Scores at the third school, Westminster West Middle, didn't improve as much overall, though seventh-graders made a 15-point jump in math.
Harford County students posted modest gains in most categories and bested the state average in every area. The county's pass rate exceeded 85 percent in every category except for eighth-grade math, the most difficult test for students statewide.
The only areas in which the county's scores dropped were seventh- and eighth-grade reading and in both cases, the declines mirrored statewide results almost exactly.
The county made a significant gain in seventh-grade math where the pass rate jumped from 78 percent to 85.2 percent. The pass rate for eighth-grade math remained stagnant, by contrast, at about 73 percent.
Harford schools also performed well under the new accountability measures established by the state after it gained a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind standards. The county said 98 percent of its middle and elementary schools met their goals in math and 83 percent met their goals in reading. Of the 16 schools that failed to meet standards in at least one area last year, 11 achieved all of their state goals this year.
"Although we have experienced a change in the way we calculate and measure student achievement at the state level, the high expectations that we set for our students have not and will not change," said Superintendent Robert M. Tomback in a statement.
In Howard County, 94.1 percent of elementary students passed the reading assessment, up slightly from 94.0 percent the previous year. Elementary students passing math increased 93.8 percent, up from 92.6 percent the previous year.
At the middle school level, the proportion of students passing reading assessments was 90.9 percent, down from 92.7 percent the previous year. The percentage of middle school students who passed math assessments rose to 89.1 percent, up from 87.3 percent.
This year, 51.5 percent of Howard's elementary students scored advanced on the reading portion, while 62 percent of middle school students scored advanced in reading. In math, 55.7 percent of elementary students scored advanced while 52 percent of middle school students scored at the advanced level.
"Our scores are very good. Our teachers and our students have worked extremely hard to get them where they are today," said Howard Superintendent Renee Foose. "I'm certainly very proud of the gains we've seen in math since the baseline year of 2003. It's impressive and a testimony to how well teachers are preparing our students."
In comparison with other counties, 95.2 percent of Howard's fifth-graders passed reading, third behind Calvert County and Carroll County. Among fourth-graders, 95.1 percent of Howard students passed reading, fourth behind Worcester, Queen Anne's and Anne Arundel counties.
Howard's eighth-graders' 90.6 percent passage in math trailed only Carroll and Worcester counties. Its sixth-grade reading passage of 91.5 percent ranked fourth behind Carroll, Queen Anne and Worcester counties.