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Md. students lead nation in test gains over past 20 years

State's students on track to compete with top performing nations in the world

By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

6:54 PM EDT, July 16, 2012

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Maryland students have made greater gains on national tests than their peers across the country and are catching up with students in top-performing nations in the world, according to a Harvard study released Monday.

The state's students have been improving at such a fast pace on reading, math and science tests that fourth- and eighth-graders are two years more advanced in their learning than they were 20 years ago, said Paul Peterson, author of the study and a professor and head of Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance. While the pace of growth is high, the state is ranked fifth in absolute scores, behind such perennial high-performers as Massachusetts.

"If every state could do as well as Maryland, we could start closing the gap," said Peterson. "We need to find out what the Maryland secret is."

The United States ranks in the middle of countries in student achievement, but researchers wanted to find out how quickly students in various countries were improving their education systems. They used three national tests given to students in the United States between 1992 and 2011 and compared the results to two international tests.

While elementary students in the United States do seem to be performing better, the study says, they are not improving as quickly as their peers in Latvia, Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Germany and Hong Kong. The U.S. rate of improvement was in the middle, about 25th out of 50 countries. But Maryland students improved at the same pace as students in Germany and Hong Kong.

Peterson said the study did not look at the reasons why one state made more progress than another, although Southern states, which were the first to put accountability measures in place, did better, as did states that had high school exit exams students have to pass to graduate. Many of the highest performing countries require students to pass tests before they can go to college.

"I am just extraordinarily proud of this achievement. I do think it is stunning. I think the emphasis in Maryland was on the highest-quality instructional program," saidNancy S. Grasmick, who was the state superintendent for nearly all of the years the study covered before retiring in 2011.

She said superintendents around the state, as well as their top academic officers, have been meeting monthly for years and that they "galvanized around the content of what children should know and be able to do."

Maryland was one of the first states to put statewide testing in place, beginning in 1992, to hold schools accountable. It also has maintained a commitment to funding education that has transcended party lines, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department Of Education.

"The schools have not been the political football they have in other states," he said. "You don't find too much disagreement when it comes to education."

Particularly strong gains were made by students in Maryland who scored below the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is considered failing.

Despite those gains, less than half of Maryland students pass the test, which is given in the fourth and eighth grades.

The state also still lags far behind high-performing countries in the number of students scoring in the advanced categories. Only 7 percent of students met that mark in reading and 12 percent to 13 percent of students in math. Twice as many students in countries like Germany and Hong Kong have students scoring in the advanced range.

"What really matters is what will happen in the next 20 years," Peterson said. "The demands for an educated workforce are greater than they were before and we are not supplying" the students.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Study results

The study by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance found:

•Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey saw substantial gains in student achievement after committing significant increases in funding, but other states that increased funding saw only marginal gains.

•Maryland led the nation in achievement gains from 1992 to 2011.

•The top states also include Florida, Delaware, Massachusetts, Louisiana and South Carolina.

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