Acknowledging that scores on a national reading test may have been inflated, Maryland education officials changed course this week, saying they will work harder to reduce the number of special education students excluded from taking the test.
State school Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery said she would discuss the issue with local superintendents, testing directors and special education supervisors across the state in the coming year, putting more pressure on the local school districts to limit the practice. Recently released memos also show that state Department of Education officials have encouraged school systems over the years to include more children on the national test.
"I am concerned about people having a good baseline of information on how we as a state are performing," Lowery said.
When Maryland scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released this month, they showed the state had the highest exclusion rate of special education and immigrant students learning English. Maryland excluded 66 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities on the NAEP, far higher than the national rate of 16 percent. In eighth grade, 60 percent of students were excluded.
Because those students tend to be some of the lowest-performing, excluding many of them meant that average scores rose.
Politicians and education advocates questioned whether Maryland was gaming the system and whether its much-lauded reputation as No. 1 in the nation for education was accurate. NAEP scores, considered the nation's most reliable long-term gauge of student performance, are among the factors used by Education Week to determine state rankings each year. Maryland has been No. 1 for five years in a row, a fact Gov. Martin O'Malley often points out.
The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test, estimates that Maryland's scores were 7 points higher for fourth-grade reading and 5 points higher for eighth-grade reading because of the exclusion. Math scores were not affected as much.
Maryland has generally had much higher scores in reading than the rest of the nation. This year its official scores were the third highest of all the states in fourth-grade reading, but when the scores are recalibrated by the National Center for Education Statistics to account for the high exclusion rates, Maryland drops to 13th in the nation. In eighth-grade reading, its rank drops from seventh to 14th.
In Maryland, individual schools decide which special education students take the NAEP test, and over the years, state superintendents have attempted to nudge the districts to exclude fewer children. In the fall of 2010 under then-state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and in 2012 under Lowery, memos were written to the districts explaining their concerns.
In her letter, Lowery included a chart showing how the state's exclusion rates were climbing each time the NAEP was given. She ended the letter by saying that she wanted to "ensure valid assessments of academic performance" of Maryland students.
But two weeks ago, state officials said they had little control over the exclusion rate.
Maryland says it had excluded such a high number of special education children and those learning English as a second language because many have education plans that allow test questions to be read to them on the Maryland State Assessments. The NAEP does not allow this so-called read-aloud accommodation.
The read-aloud accommodations have been determined by administrators and teachers on a case-by-case basis at the school level. The strategy is designed to help students have better comprehension and answer questions more accurately.
Some educators believe the accommodation has been too widely used in Maryland and may be inflating state scores as well.
Low-achieving schools or schools trying to raise their scores are particularly likely to use the accommodation, said Lynn Hendrickson, who has been teaching third grade for the past 13 years in Montgomery County schools.
"There are a lot of kids that get the read-aloud," she said, pointing out that many of those students can read, but their comprehension isn't good. "If you have someone read to them they can get a proficient score."
Of the 27 students she taught in a regular class one year, she said, only eight took the test in a regular way; the rest got special accommodations.
But she questions whether those accommodations were always needed. "I had a kid who could read 'Harry Potter' and I was supposed to read him the math test off the computer," she said.
In some cases, she said, students are embarrassed by the read-aloud accommodation.
"It is not measuring what [the student] can do. ... I don't know if you are really getting a true skill level" with the accommodation, she said, adding that she believes MSA scores have been inflated by its use.