Student test scores had the largest one-year drop since the Maryland School Assessments began a decade ago — an outcome that many had predicted after officials changed what teachers taught in the classroom but not the annual test.
The state administered the MSAs for the last time this year — at a cost of about $9 million — despite drastic changes in curriculum as schools adopted what's known as the Common Core standards. While federal officials have agreed not to hold Maryland schools accountable for the scores, federal law required testing to continue.
Some educators blamed the poor showing on the fact that teachers were uncertain about the new material and that students knew the scores this year wouldn't count.
The dip — the second year in a row that scores have declined — was remarkably large for math. The state average dropped 8 percentage points in the elementary grades and 9 percentage points for middle-schoolers. Reading scores statewide also went down, 2 percentage points in elementary and 5 in middle schools.
State officials, who released the scores on Friday, said the results were to be expected.
"I am not disappointed in the results," said Jack Smith, the Maryland State Department of Education's chief academic officer.
But some education experts said that, at least in reading, students should have done far better, not worse, on the MSA because the Common Core standards are more rigorous.
"I think if you are being taught Common Core, you ought to be able to blow the top off the MSAs," said Leslie Wilson, the former head of testing for the state, who retired three years ago.
In math, however, Wilson and other experts said some students were at a disadvantage because of the new curriculum, which changed the order in which mathematical concepts are taught. Some students might have been tested on concepts they have not yet seen in the classroom.
The MSAs, given to 350,000 students in grades three through eight for the last time this spring, will be replaced by a new test next year. That test, called PARCC, is tied to the new Common Core standards that are being taught in Maryland and most other states.
School systems around Maryland also lost several instruction days because of winter weather cancellations, which pushed back testing in some schools.
Such a steep decline is not unprecedented.
Just as Maryland was transitioning from its Maryland School Performance Assessment Program in 2002 to the MSA, the state reported some of the worst reading and math scores in the previous 10 years. Some of the declines were comparable to those seen this year.
"When you get toward the end of a testing program, there is always a transition phase," said Wilson.
This year's scores are still higher on average than they were when the tests were first administered in 2003. And across the state, most elementary students passed — 84 percent in reading and 76 percent in math. Pass rates for the middle schools were lower than for elementary schools, as they have been historically.
Many educators, legislators and parents argued for a one-year testing moratorium until the Common Core curriculum matches the new tests, which will debut in the spring of 2015.
Some states, including Kentucky and New York, altered their tests, putting some Common Core questions into their old tests and taking out some of the material that was no longer being taught.
Such a move would have been expensive, so Maryland officials decided to go ahead with the old MSA, saying they were bound by federal law. However, officials did get a waiver so that schools wouldn't be penalized based on test scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Baltimore City, which had the state's largest declines in math, also had the worst scores in the state in both reading and math.
Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford county scores also declined.
"It's disappointing to see declines in student performance in general, and increases in almost every achievement gap in particular, so we have to hope that these results are not due to decreased student learning and equity but instead results of the MSA becoming obsolete," said Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN, an education advocacy group.
Pilot testing of the new PARCC assessment also may have contributed to the declines. Statewide, 40,000 students — about one classroom of students in nearly every school — took either the reading or the math portion of PARCC instead of the MSA. In Anne Arundel County alone, that meant that the scores of 11,000 students weren't part of the results.
"The students who took PARCC were chosen randomly and without any regard to student group or ability level, but their absence from the MSA testing pool clearly has an impact for individual schools and the school system as a whole," said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County schools.
State officials played down the test score results, saying they had anticipated a downward trend and that the results are not a true indication of what students know.
In previous years, the state superintendent has publicly presented the results and local school systems have held news conferences to highlight positive trends, inviting elected officials, teachers and board members.
This year local superintendents in the Baltimore area sent out written statements rather than being interviewed. And state Superintendent Lillian Lowery was not available to talk to reporters.
Some educators and parents believe schools and students didn't take the tests as seriously this year.
Baltimore County parent Cathi Forbes said her son told her that the test-taking rules didn't seem quite as strict this year. Her children, she said, have loved MSA testing weeks because they don't think the tests are hard and have no homework and free time to play.
This year, her sixth-grade son said the math test was harder than normal, but she said he had been told to expect that he wouldn't know some of the material, so it didn't bother him. "He understood he hadn't been taught what was on the test, so that would make it harder," she said.
What has bothered Forbes was that she found the math curriculum to be "a mishmash mess." The concepts seemed too easy, and there wasn't enough time to practice.
"I really felt he lost ground this year in math," she said.
In Baltimore County elementary schools, which had a rocky rollout of the Common Core because of delays in writing the reading curriculum, reading scores dropped only 3 percentage points to an 87 percent pass rate. Math scores declined about 6 percentage points in the elementary grades.
"These data highlight to us, especially in middle school math, what we already know — that what we've been teaching over the last two school years and the MSA are not aligned," Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said in a statement.
Baltimore City's pass rates in reading and math took a sharp downturn in all but seventh-grade reading.
The city saw the largest drop in elementary school math, where 47 percent of students passed, a 22 percentage-point decline from last year. In middle school, 36 percent passed, 12 percentage points less than last year. The worst pass rates were posted by eighth-graders in math — only 29 percent passed.
The percentage of elementary school students reading at proficient levels dropped by 5 percentage points, while middle school pass rates dropped by 7 points.
In a statement, city school officials called its scores "disappointing." The district said it would use the results to "inform continued implementation and refinement of instruction aligned to the new standards, particularly where significant changes from prior years are seen at individual schools."
Smith, the state's chief academic officer, said the data will still be valuable at the school level, where teachers and principals can look for achievement gaps among groups of students, including those with disabilities or economically disadvantaged students.
"Even though we know there is a lot of transition going on, we can still glean what value there is in the data," Smith said during a conference call with reporters Friday.
Anne Arundel Superintendent George Arlotto agreed. "There remains in these results data that is useful to administrators, principals and teachers as we continue to move forward," he said.