But Jack Smith, the state's chief academic officer and a former Calvert County superintendent, said he doesn't believe the accommodation has affected scores on state tests. He said the number of students who receive the accommodation is relatively small out of the 500,000 students who take the test statewide.
Smith declined to release the percentage of students who receive the read-aloud accommodation on state tests, saying he doesn't know the figures and must do more research.
The read-aloud accommodation, which is intended to be used in regular classroom instruction as well as on tests, was put in place because educators were concerned students would fall behind their peers if they weren't read to. For example, if they couldn't read a history book, then they wouldn't be learning the subject.
But Kalman R. Hettleman, a special education expert and advocate in Maryland, said he believes the accommodation inflates test scores and, even worse, obscures the need for students to get intensive instruction so they can learn to read independently.
"The accommodation is egregiously overused," he said. "It is bad for the kids and it is illegal. It is not just true in Maryland. It is a true all over the country."
The NAEP is the only national test given every two years that has tracked student performance for decades in states and the nation. The test is given to a sampling of students across each state. The NAEP is far harder than most state tests, including Maryland's.
The board that governs NAEP has been putting pressure on states for years to reduce the number of students excluded from the test. Maryland is coming under criticism this year because many states have worked over the years to reduce their exclusion rates, but Maryland's has continued to climb.
In 2006, Virginia wrote tighter rules governing which students could have questions read aloud to them on state tests. And Tennessee reduced its exclusion rate on the 2013 NAEP testing after meetings with local superintendents to discourage the use of read alouds. Tennessee test scores went up while its exclusion rate went down.
In her memo from 2012, Lowery asked schools to make sure that each student needed the accommodation. Now Lowery wants to put more pressure on local systems to change the use of the accommodation, not only for the NAEP, but perhaps also for the new state test that will be coming in 2014-2015.
The new test, called PARCC and tied to the new Common Core standards, will allow some students to be read to, but it appears the accommodation may be more strictly limited to those who are blind or have significant learning issues.
Some of the decisions about accommodations on the new test have yet to be made, Smith said, but he indicated that the state would be pressing school districts to use the read aloud less often.
"I think as the accommodations come out we need to have very in-depth, blunt conversations about how the read alouds are used," Smith said.
The exclusion rates themselves are unlikely to hurt Maryland's No. 1 status on the Education Week rankings. Sterling Lloyd, a senior researcher at Education Week Research Center, which publishes the rankings, said the rankings use only the test score averages for each state on the NAEP and do not factor in the exclusion rates.