Amid falling MSA elementary scores statewide, some Harford schools continue to shine

In a year when the state's achievement testing program for public elementary and middle school students saw significant, across-the-board declines, there were a few bright spots in performance at Harford County's individual elementary schools.

Fourth graders tested under the Maryland School Assessment, or MSA, at Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston scored at a 100 percent proficient or advanced level in both math and reading.

Overall, the same school's MSA scores topped 97 percent proficient and advanced in third, fourth and fifth grades for math and reading, the only one of 33 Harford elementary schools to post that high a performance. Youth's Benefit's overall MSA scores also topped the county in the 2011-12 school year.

"Youth's Benefit Elementary School continues to outperform state averages on the MSA, and we attribute these high scores to ongoing improvement in instruction and data analysis by our teachers, which allows them to diagnose and meet individual student needs," Angela Morton, the county public school system's executive director for elementary school performance, said through a spokesperson. Morton was principal at Youth's Benefit prior to being promoted last summer to oversee all of Harford's elementary ed program. Thomas Smith is the school's current principal.

Students at two other schools, Forest Hill and Emmorton, posted reading and math scores that were at least 95 percent proficient or advanced in all three grades.

Fourth-graders at Norrisville Elementary posted the only other 100 percent performance rate in the county on their math MSA tests. Though the fourth grade MSA math performance at Norrisville was 100 percent, both fourth grade and fifth grade reading scores at the school dropped below their 100 percent rate from the prior year.

At North Harford Elementary, MSA performance improved in all three grades on both tests, and the school's students scored at a 90 percent proficient or advanced rate on all the tests. North Harford was the only school in the county to post an across-the-board performance increase last year.

In addition to North Harford, students at Churchville, Fountain Green, Hickory, Red Pump and Ring Factory elementary posted scores that were better than 90 percent proficient or advanced in both subjects and in all three grades.

At Darlington Elementary, just 66.7 percent of the small school's fourth graders scored at a proficient or advanced level on the math MSA, and at Riverside Elementary in Joppatowne, 67.4 percent of the third graders were proficient or advanced on the math MSA. Those were the only sub-70 averages posted across the county.

Riverside's scores decreased across the board, as did scores at Meadowvale in Havre de Grace and William S. James in Bel Air South. Despite the declines at the latter school, its performance averages topped 85 percent in both subjects and all three grades.

Riverside and Magnolia Elementary were the only schools where performance levels were below 80 percent proficient and advanced for in both subjects and for all three grades. At Magnolia, there was a large 11.2-point gain in performance on the third grade reading MSA from 62.3 percent proficient or advanced to 73.5 percent.

Harford's overall elementary MSA math scores dropped in all three elementary grades last school year compared with 2011-12, although not precipitously.

The third grade math composite showed 87.1 percent scoring advanced or proficient on the MSA last year compared with 89.9 the previous year; the fourth grade composite last year was 91.5 parent compared to 92.7 percent the previous year; and the fifth grade composite was 88.1 percent last year, compared with 89.5 percent the prior year.

Harford's overall reading scores last year fell in the fourth and fifth grades compared to 2011-12, while the third grade scoring was relatively flat.

The third grade reading composite was 88.7 percent scoring advanced or proficient, up from 88.6 the previous year; the fourth grade composite was 91.8, down from 93.9; and the fifth grade composite was 92.1, down from 93.1.

Despite the local declines, Harford's 2012-13 MSA elementary scores were still well above the statewide averages for all three grades in both math and reading.

Education officials at the state level and in some local school districts have blamed the decline in last year's MSA scores on the implementation of a new so-called nationwide Common Core curriculum and say what is being taught to students in the classroom does not coincide what they are being asked in the MSA tests, which were developed several years earlier. This was particularly the case with scores on the math portion of the MSA, where the year-to-year declines were the biggest.

Similar refrains have been heard from other states that give similar assessments and are in the process of implementing Common Core.

Shortly after the 2012-13 MSA scores were reported last month, many educators began calling for a suspension or moratorium on testing until the material tested is aligned with Common Core, according to a report by The Baltimore Sun.

For instance, the state teachers union and school superintendents association said they would support a halt to the Maryland School Assessment, according to The Sun.

No such call to halt testing had come from leaders of the Harford school system as of late last week; however, some school board members and local politicians have previously expressed concern about Common Core and its connection to the federal government.

This story is updated from an earlier version to reflect a correction in the 2013 third grade math composite for Harford County.

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