Maryland saw a dramatic decrease in the number of its elementary schools that received the highest rating for academic progress under a tough new school ranking system, according to results the state released Tuesday.
Only 47 of the state's 892 elementary schools made it into "strand 1," the rung for schools that have made the most progress under the system, called the School Progress Index. That was down from 255 schools that met the criteria the year before, when the system was put into place. Schools are ranked on a scale of 1, the highest, to 5, the lowest.
Even schools from neighborhoods that promote them as the best in the state didn't make their way into the top ranking.
Schools such as Roland Park in Baltimore City, Rodgers Forge and Fifth District in Baltimore County, Clarksville and Centennial Lane in Howard County, Severna Park in Anne Arundel and North Harford in Harford County were labeled "strand 2" schools. Schools that might not always be considered top fliers — including New Town and Cromwell Valley in Baltimore County — earned "strand 1" status.
Only three of 230 middle schools met all the standards under the ranking system, far fewer than the year before.
The state also saw a nearly tenfold increase in the number of elementary schools ranked in the worst category.
State officials said parents shouldn't worry.
"The sky is not falling on Maryland education," said Jack Smith, chief academic officer for the Maryland Department of Education.
The decrease in performance across the state from last year is the result, in part, in the drop in statewide test scores. The drop has been attributed to a change in curriculum, which began last year and is fully in place this academic year.
The new rating system, which is required under a waiver the state received from the No Child Left Behind law, is likely to confuse parents. Schools are graded against their past performance rather than solely on the percentage of students who pass state tests, as they were in the past.
Every school is expected to improve its achievement on state tests, as well as close the gaps between its lowest- and highest-performing students. Unlike in previous years, the federal government does not require sanctions or other punitive changes at schools that don't meet the standards.
In many elementary schools in the state, 95 percent of children are passing state tests, so it is difficult for the schools to improve further. Therefore, a school that has a lower percentage of students passing but made good progress from last year might be rated higher than the perennial top performers.
In some cases, Smith said, the highest-performing schools might have trouble raising achievement of special education students or those learning English as a second language. The new system shines a light, he said, on those kinds of differences.
"We have worked hard to come up with a new way of looking at it that reflects the complexity of the children we serve," Smith said.
The current system was created in a rush, after the U.S. Department of Education gave states the opportunity to apply for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the nation could not meet the requirement of the law that every child be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
If the old standard had remained in place, Smith said, nearly every school in the state would have been considered a failing school.
"That is not a reasonable statement," Smith said.
The federal waiver was for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years, and the state will have to reapply this year.
Smith said the state will try to create a simpler and more stable approach that parents can understand.
Some schools, he said, have gone from the bottom to the top in a year, an indication that the rating system is too sensitive a tool.
New this year, the state also factored in scores on the state science tests, given in grades five and eight. The results were flat this year, although a much lower percentage of students are passing science tests than reading and math. In fifth grade, 67 percent passed; in eighth grade, 71.4 percent did.
While the state did not release a list of "strand 1" schools. Baltimore County said four of its schools had earned strand 1 status, while the number of strand 1 and 2 schools went from 83 last year to 31.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun