While students around the state showed progress on the Maryland School Assessment, Baltimore City not only experienced a setback this year with declines in math and reading, but several dozen of the district's schools were among those that performed the worst in the state.
The lower scores in Baltimore were posted during a year in which the city beefed up its testing security after cheating was discovered at several schools.
In an impassioned speech to principals and education advocates on Wednesday, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso — who is expected to renew his contract — said the scores over the past seven years show that the "progress has been real" and that to question that is "an injustice to our kids."
He also said, however, that it would be "naive to think that changes in [test security] didn't have an impact."
In the city, 61 percent of students are proficient or advanced in math, a decrease of about 5 percentage points from 2010. The share of students reading at proficient or advanced levels in the district is at 69 percent, a drop of 3 percentage points from last year. The district noted drops across all grade levels and subjects, with the exception of seventh-grade math, which remained flat.
The 2011 scores come on the heels of Alonso's proclaiming that they would be the most "transparent scores of any urban district in America," after the city tightened test security this year, spending nearly $400,000 to hire monitors for every school.
Last week, Alonso announced that two schools had cheated on the state assessments in previous years. As first reported by The Baltimore Sun, two elementary schools, Abbottston and Fort Worthington, were found to have tampered with state test booklets in 2009 and 2010. Fort Worthington was among six schools in the city that had 20-point drops in reading and math this year.
It was the second year in a row that Alonso had come forward to acknowledge cheating on the assessments; last year, a state investigation found that George Washington Elementary, a National Blue Ribbon school, had cheated on the 2008 assessments.
According to a Sun analysis of state data, of the 50 schools in the state that noted the largest score drops, 45 were from the city. In addition, 19 schools recorded drops of at least 20 percentage points in math or reading; six of those schools saw 20 percentage point drops in both subjects.
In addition to Fort Worthington, the schools that had the 20-point drops are: Bay-Brook Elementary; Bluford Drew Jemison STEM West Academy; Callaway Elementary; Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary; and the Knowledge and Success Academy.
Facing the first significant decline of his tenure, Alonso called the scores "unacceptable."
Until last year's flat scores, the city was experiencing gains of up to 7 points and 8 points a year, a trend the schools chief called "extraordinary" for a large, urban district. But experts in urban education say the city is also experiencing the dip that is eventually felt throughout similar districts.
"We've got a number of analyses which indicate that even districts that show substantial long-term gains, five years or more, there is at least one or two years in that cycle where the district sees a dip in their scores," said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the nation's 66 largest urban public school systems.
Casserly also said that declines of 3 and 5 percentage points are not statistically significant enough to read into. "You almost never see these trends move upward in a straight line," he said. "If they do, it's more reason for suspicion."
Eight city schools have been referred to the state for investigation this year, Alonso said, and four others were already under investigation. At least five of the eight have a clear explanation for declining scores, he said. Another five schools are still being scrutinized, he said. Citing fairness, he did not name the schools but said they should not be presumed to have cheated.
The district is doing a school-by-school analysis of what could have contributed to significant drops. Alonso said a number of variables, such as poor instruction, a significant number of schools' testing a small number of students, new programming and even high turnover among teachers, could contribute to a school's drop in scores.
"We need to own the results as the results, because it would be too easy an out for me to say the scores dipped because we put in testing protocols," he said. "That absolves the system from the responsibility about what needs to happen in classrooms."
Sonja Santelises, who took over as the school system's chief academic officer last year, said she was disappointed by the results. She said that while the district had zeroed in on professional development for teachers and principals this year, the scores show that "we have a lot of work to do about teaching and learning and it is now an issue of adapting practice in the day-to-day."
When the state test was first given in 2004, about one in three city students passed the math test, and not even half of the test takers were reading proficiently. Since then, the number of students reading at proficient levels has jumped by 20 percentage points in reading and 28 points in math.