'Reasons to celebrate,' but improvement needed on Harford test scores, school officials say

Harford County Public Schools students scores on the PARCC standardized math and reading exams dropped last year, as they did across the state, but in most cases still remained above the Maryland average.

But an HCPS official said even though improvement is needed, results on the PARCC and other assessments given to Harford students, as well as the SAT, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, are a reason to celebrate,

“We have many reasons to celebrate achievement in our school system, as well as areas that we need to address that might need improvement,” Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, told Board of Education members during a presentation on overall student achievement.

Elementary, middle and high school students took the PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for the third year last spring. The PARCC scores for the 2016-17 school year, along with attendance and graduation rates, were discussed with the board at its most recent meeting Nov. 13.

“The continuing story is that only about 40 percent of our students are on track and there still remain huge achievement gaps,” state school board President Andrew Smarick was quoted by The Baltimore Sun, when the PARCC scores were first released over the summer.

The Sun reported that state school officials had been optimistic that PARCC scores would rise last school year as students and teachers gained more familiarity with them. But less than half of the students statewide passed and even scores in historically highest-performing districts failed to reach 60 percent.

PARCC scores

Students across Maryland began taking the PARCC in the 2014-15 school year.

PARCC exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Students scoring 4 meet state standards, those scoring 5 exceed standards.

Depending on grade and subject, Harford’s scores tended to average a percentage from the mid-40s to middle or high 50s of students earning either a 4 or a 5, according to figures discussed with the school board.

Elementary scores

  • Harford third-graders met or exceeded standards on their reading exam at a 53.3 percent rate, up from 51.7 percent in 2016 but below 56.5 percent in 2015.
  • Fourth-graders passed reading at a rate of 50.9 percent in 2017, down from 58 percent in 2015 to 52.1 percent in 2016.
  • Fifth-graders passed reading at a 48.4 percent rate, down from 54.5 percent in 2016 and 55.3 percent in 2015.
  • On elementary math tests, 50.5 percent of third-graders passed, compared to 57.8 percent in 2016 and 51 percent in 2015.
  • Fourth-graders passed math at a rate of 42.8 percent, compared to 44.2 percent in 2016 and 41.9 percent in 2015.
  • Fifth-grade math scores went up to 48.2 percent passing from 41.6 percent in 2015 and 43.1 percent in 2016.

Middle school scores

  • Sixth-graders passed the English-language arts exams at a 53 percent rate, up from 52.7 percent the previous two years.
  • Seventh-graders passed English at a 43.2 percent rate, a decrease from 45.6 percent in 2016 but higher than 40.1 percent in 2015.
  • Eighth-grade English scores saw a steady declined in English, from 56.5 percent two years ago to 47.9 percent in 2016 to 44.1 percent in 2015.
  • Sixth-grade math scores fell to 42.5 percent passing, compared to 43.8 percent in 2015 and 43.1 percent in 2016.
  • Seventh-graders, who could take either grade-level math or Algebra I, had 43.2 percent passing rate, compared to 45.6 percent in 2016 and 40.1 percent in 2015.
  • Eighth-graders could take grade-level math, Algebra I or geometry exams. Their combined scores were 45.7 percent, compared to 48.4 percent in 2016 and 47.7 percent two years ago.

High school scores

The Algebra I and 10th-grade English PARCC exams are required to graduate from high school, according to Philip Snyder, supervisor of accountability. Students must score at least a 3 to graduate, he said.

Students also must pass the High School Assessment Government exam in order to graduate and must take the HSA Biology/Science test, according to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) website.

They do not have to pass the biology exam, just participate, as the state makes the transition to a new Maryland Integrated Science Assessment, according to MSDE.

  • Among HCPS English 10 test takers 56.8 percent scored 4 or 5, a decline from 60.7 percent in 2016 but higher than 56.1 percent in 2015.
  • Middle and high school students passed the Algebra I PARCC exam at a rate of 49.8 percent, compared to 54.1 percent in 2016 and 46.7 percent in 2015.

Brown said the English 10 PARCC is “extremely rigorous,” and that it has been compared to assessments given to people training to be teachers.

Ninety percent of HCPS students passed the state’s High School Assessment Biology exam, compared to 92.3 percent in 2016 and 88.4 percent in 2015.

Joseph Schmitz, executive director of high and middle school instruction and performance, said 93.3 percent of students passed the HSA Government exam last year. Data from prior years was not available.

Laura Runyeon, the school board vice president, asked what happens if a student fails a PARCC exam required for graduation but still passes the course in that content area.

Brown said students are able to retake PARCC exams or can go through an alternative known as a bridge program.

They also can complete a project to “demonstrate their knowledge of content” on the test, according to Schmitz.

“It is important to note that we did not have any student who did not graduate due to state assessment graduation requirements,” Schmitz said.

Technology and test taking

Board member Joseph Hau asked how technology is being incorporated into testing. All Harford students took PARCC with paper and pencil the first year in 2015 and scored well ahead of state averages when as students in most other counties already were taking the test online.

Electronic testing is being phased in in HCPS. Fifth- and eighth-graders had to take the PARCC online last year, and it was up to individual schools for the other grades, Snyder said.

The phase-in is following the HCPS “one-to-one” initiative to pair each of the 37,000-plus students with his or her own assigned computer, as HCPS officials move to close what they admit has been a system-wide technology gap.

Attendance, graduation rates

Attendance at elementary, middle and high school dipped slightly in 2016-17 to 95.4 percent of elementary schoolers, 94.8 percent of middle-schoolers and 93.3 percent of high-schoolers, according to the data.

Brown attributed the decline to “the severe flu that circulated in most of our schools last year.”

Graduation rates for those in the “four-year cohort” — students who graduate after four years — declined slightly for the Class of 2016, the most recent year for which data was available.

The data indicates 89.1 percent graduated in four years in 2016, compared to 89.9 percent in 2015 and 89.8 percent in 2014.

Schmitz said students, who earn a certificate of program completion, rather than a diploma, or who drop out or withdraw for any reason, can affect the graduation rate.

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