Howard County and Carroll County students scored better last spring in nearly every grade and subject on Maryland's annual standardized tests — widening the gap with other Baltimore area school systems, which reported mixed results.
But even in those highest-performing counties, only about half of students were able to pass the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The PARCC test was given in grades three through eight, and high school students were tested in algebra and English.
Some state school board members said they're concerned that there was so little improvement compared to the year before, when the test was given for the first time.
"We are seeing no movement from the baseline. Frankly, some of us were expecting some gains," said Andy Smarick, the board president.
Across Maryland school systems, math scores climbed slightly in the second year of the test, but language arts scores were essentially flat, statewide results previously released showed. On Tuesday, Maryland education officials for the first time released results for school districts and individual schools.
The latest results show Baltimore County and Baltimore City with scores lower than the rest of the area. Baltimore City schools for instance, had 20 percent or fewer students passing in most grades, while overall about 15 percent of students were passing the tests. Only a quarter of county students in grades four, five and six passed the PARCC math test.
Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the city scores mirror state trends but also reflect some setbacks in the district's academic reforms.
One education expert found the city results troubling. "Even as we know that providing true educational opportunity is deeply difficult for our least affluent children, we cannot but continue to call it tragic when some 85 percent of Baltimore City's eighth-graders are not proficient in reading, even if that result is a little higher than last year's results," said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy.
In comparison, Baltimore County had a pass rate about double that of the city's, with about a third of all students passing the tests. The county's scores went up significantly in math. In third grade, for instance, the pass rate for math went from 32 percent to 46 percent. But on average, scores in English went down — in some grades significantly.
In Anne Arundel County, math and English scores dipped in some grades and rose slightly in others, with about 40 percent of students in most grades passing both subjects. In a statement, county officials noted that twice as many high school students earned a passing score of 4 or 5 this year compared to the previous year.
In general, Harford County saw declines in English and increases in math scores. Just over half the students in the county — 52 percent — are passing the English test, while 40 percent are passing math on average.
Howard students had pass rates greater than 50 percent, and Carroll's had pass rates of up to 66 percent, depending on the grade.
"We had been hoping that scores would go up a bit more this year," said Greg Bricca, Carroll County's director of research and accountability. He said that compared to the rest of the state, "I think we have got to be fairly satisfied with how we did."
But both Carroll and Howard showed much lower scores than the year before in seventh- and eighth-grade math, when many top students take algebra I and geometry. Only 13 percent of eighth-graders in Howard passed the math portion of the exam.
Pass rates have dropped significantly since the state switched two years ago from the Maryland State Assessments to the PARCC, a more difficult test. State education officials say they have raised the bar for what is being taught in schools with the goal that students will be better prepared for college or a job that pays a wage that can support a family. Currently, large numbers of high school graduates must take remedial classes in community college before they can go on to other studies.
State school Superintendent Karen Salmon said the results are similar to when the state introduced other new assessments in the past 30 years.
"It is difficult to expect students who have not had the instruction to be tested on it and then be expected to do well," she said.
This year's scores do not carry ramifications for students, schools or school systems. Maryland has not yet set what it will consider a passing score. The PARCC grades students on a scale of one to five, with five being advanced. A four or five on the test is considered passing nationally.
Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said the increases show that elementary school teachers are more comfortable with a new Common Core curriculum that was introduced three years ago. But he said he is concerned about the math scores.
Just as in Carroll and Howard, advanced seventh- and eighth-grade math students in Baltimore County can take algebra I at the end of middle school. As a result, they take the algebra I PARCC test, but their scores aren't included in the results for their grade level.
One of the bright spots in the test results, state board members said, is how well the highest-performing middle school students did on the algebra test. Two-thirds of the 20,000 middle school students taking the algebra I exam are passing.
Both Dance and Santelises said they believe some of the decline in test scores is the result of differences between the paper and online version of the test. Dance called the test "flawed." The state is studying the issue.
In Baltimore, Santelises said, the most troubling result was a steep drop in third-grade reading scores, which had previously been a grade with some of the system's strongest results. This year, about 12 percent of third-grade students passed the exam, compared to 19 percent last year.
The highest performance in the city was in third-grade math, where 19 percent of students met or exceeded expectations.
Statewide, officials found the results particularly troubling for some groups of students. For instance, only 9 percent of students whose first language is not English and only 17 percent of low-income students in grades three through eight are passing the math test.
Third-grade literacy — a key indicator for academic success — had been a focus of city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, under whom Santelises served as chief academic officer for three years until she left in 2013.
During her tenure as academic chief, Santelises was credited for reading scores climbing after she introduced a new curriculum and began implementing the Common Core in early grades ahead of other districts.
In the last two years, however, Santelises said, it is unclear whether the curriculum has been taught consistently. She said there are a number of schools that still were not sure of how much reading and writing should be taking place, and how complex texts should be. Some even thought phonics was optional, according to a curriculum audit done by the previous administration.
"In the absence of clarity, the absence of follow-through, they just did what they had to do," said Santelises, who started as CEO on July 1. "We are trying to get things back on track, with a solid teaching and learning focus."
Santelises said slight bumps in algebra I pass rates, though just 14 percent, showed the district has "ground to build on," adding that "by no means is it significant enough."
Every student took the exam online last year, school officials said, which could have contributed to dips in performance especially among third-, sixth- and 10th-graders who took the exam on paper the year before.
School officials said they are joining other districts in examining what affect the mode of test-taking had on results.
"It does raise the question about our young people's access to technology," Santelises said.