Maryland's student test scores declined significantly for the first time in a decade, a drop officials attributed to the beginning of a tumultuous time in public education that will bring widespread changes to what is taught from kindergarten through high school.
The drops in test scores for both elementary and middle schools were seen in nearly every school district and were as great in the higher-performing districts of Howard and Montgomery counties as they were in Baltimore City.
Students did worst in math, with state scores dropping an average of 4 percentage points at both the elementary and middle-school grades. The only increase was seen in middle-school reading, which rose 1.3 percentage points. Elementary school reading also slipped about 2 percentage points.
Maryland State School Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery said that she believed a variety of factors contributed to the decline, chiefly the gradual introduction of new standards called the Common Core.
The Common Core is a set of voluntary national standards for kindergarten through 12th grade adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia several years ago. Schools must teach the new curriculum in all reading and math classrooms by the fall, but some systems in Maryland started using pieces of it earlier.
New tests that align with the new curriculum still are being developed, so the state is using the old Maryland School Assessment, which was given to 300,000 students in grades three through eight and doesn't necessarily test what students were taught.
"I do think people were more attuned to the Common Core than the public knew, and that does make for a misalignment between what we are teaching and what we are assessing," Lowery said.
Low teacher morale in the face of education reforms may also have played a role in lowering test scores, according to Lowery and the state teachers union. In addition to the new curriculum and new tests, a new teacher evaluation system is coming in the next several years.
"I refer to this as the tsunami of ed reform," said Betty H. Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association. "On an individual basis teachers are feeling very, very demoralized."
Some officials and experts questioned whether the declines were in fact tied to the new curriculum.
During the state school board meeting Tuesday, member James H. DeGraffenreidt asked Lowery if the state had completed an analysis to determine if the questions that students answered incorrectly were those not covered by the new curriculum. Lowery said the state had not.
"Is it real or is it just an excuse?" DeGraffenreidt asked.
Maryland is one of the first states in the nation to announce its test scores from this school year, so it is unclear if declines will be seen elsewhere, though Delaware scores also fell. Maryland did see scores dip in 2001 and 2002 while the state changed from old tests given in the 1990s to the current MSAs.
Bob Linn, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado who is an expert in assessments, said the declines Maryland saw this year were not that large, but he doesn't believe that they were all due to the transition to a new curriculum.
"When you switch to the Common Core, it doesn't happen overnight. Teachers are going to take a while to adjust to the new material. I wouldn't expect an immediate problem," he said.
Baltimore County scores dropped about 3 percentage points in math and 1 percentage point in reading in the elementary grades. But the county did not see the precipitous declines of other counties, such as Anne Arundel and Howard. Those counties had gone further in switching to the new lessons than Baltimore County.
Math scores in Anne Arundel fell 7 percentage points in the middle grades and 2 percentage points in elementary grades. In Howard County, math scores fell by 5 percentage points in middle school and 2 percentage points in elementary school.
Despite the drops in county school scores, dozens of elementary schools statewide had more than 85 percent of their students meeting standards.
"It is not a surprise to me that you have declines in math," said Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance. "The declines really don't matter if you are implementing a stronger curriculum."
Baltimore City math scores declined by nearly 5 percentage points in elementary and 4 percentage points in the middle grades. In middle schools, 47 percent of students passed the math test and 65 percent of students passed the reading test. In elementary schools, 70 percent of students passed both reading and math.
City schools interim CEO Tisha Edwards said the district had been bracing for dips. Some schools in the city, which began rolling out the new curriculum as early as 2011, completely abandoned the old one.
She said that the district expects it will take at least three years for test scores to begin reflecting what's happening in city classrooms.
"We have to embrace the fact that we're in transition, and we believe in the Common Core because it's right for children," she said.
Still, Edwards said some data — such as 38 percent of eighth-graders testing proficient in math — is cause for concern.
"Let me be clear: No one here is comfortable with the data," Edwards said. "Transition or not, we still have a lot of work to do."
But for most school districts, scores remained extremely high. The declines were not large enough to wipe out the 30- and 40-percentage point gains that many districts had made since the tests were given first in 2003.
Reacting to the declines, Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement that gains over the years had been "tremendous."
"Our new curriculum asks teachers and students to dig deeper into core skills and concepts. A drop in scores does not represent a drop in student achievement," he said. "We will continue to support our students and educators during the next few years as we make a transition that better prepares them to compete globally."
In an unusual twist, Dance said he was most concerned this year not about schools that have shown major declines, but those whose scores have remained the same or increased. Those schools, he said, are the ones that have not yet begun the transition and will face the greatest hurdles in the next year.
"For me the individual school results tell a story," Dance said. "For schools that have the larger declines, they are definitely on the right track. ... I would say keep doing what you are doing."
Anne Arundel County's departing Superintendent Kevin Maxwell agreed that the declines were expected.
"I believe that it does not in any way indicate that we are not capable of the work, that the kids are not capable of the work," Maxwell said.
Anne Arundel County pass rates in elementary math and reading remained above 90 percent despite the drops, as they did in Howard County. The two counties saw the largest decreases in middle-school math.
Howard Superintendent Renee Foose acknowledged some of the county's results surprised her. But, she added, "I've never really taken MSA tremendously serious because there's not a whole lot of utility in them.
"By the time kids test and you get the results we're looking at opening school in a month. Kids took these tests three or four months ago. It's just one data point. We're not in a position to put great emphasis on this."
The teachers union's Weller said she expects test scores to continue to decline while the adjustments are made.
"I think we will see it for two or four years until we have everything in place and students adjust to the new higher standards they are going to be expected to meet," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun