Baltimore school officials are putting the best face possible on what can only be called a disappointing performance by city students on a rigorous national exam that tests proficiency in reading and math. Though city students scored small gains in reading, only 14 percent of fourth-graders and 16 percent of eighth-graders were performing at grade-level, while math scores remained flat or declined slightly. Just 13 percent of city eighth-graders and 19 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient on the math exam.

These results show the city's schools still have a long way to go toward graduating students who are fully prepared to succeed in college or the work world and that they are at best barely holding their own in relation to other large urban school systems. A system in which more than four out of five students don't have the skills needed to read, write or solve basic number problems clearly cannot be said to be adequately meeting the needs of the city's school children.

Though city students' overall scores on this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress registered small but statistically significant gains over the last time the test was given in 2011, Baltimore still ranks among the bottom third of large U.S. school systems nationally despite an ambitious school reform effort. In effect, city students are standing still or even falling compared to students in other cities who took the test.

This year's scores put Baltimore behind some systems that serve similarly large populations of low-income, minority and students for whom English is a second language. It's a measure of the slow pace of progress here that the public schools in Washington, whose student demographic profile isn't that different from our own, actually surged ahead of Baltimore just over the last two years.

No one should have any illusions that the city's schools can be turned around overnight or that there is some magic formula that will suddenly produce drastic improvements in standardized test scores. Nor should this year's scores be taken to mean that nothing fundamentally has changed as a result of the reforms introduced over the last six years by former city schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

Many of the structural changes Mr. Alonso put in place, such as closing failing schools and replacing them with new charter and transformation schools, shrinking the school system's headquarters staff in order to devote more resources to individual classrooms and giving principals more authority over budgets and staffing, helped put the schools on a solid foundation for long-term improvement. By urging principals to reduce out-of-school suspensions and develop alternatives to expulsion he also stressed the need to keep students in school where teachers can work with them until they graduate.

But while those reforms were necessary, they weren't by themselves sufficient to achieve the sustained improvement that Mr. Alonso always insisted was the ultimate goal of reform. For that effort to be successful, the school system must also be able to engineer a snowball effect, in which higher quality classroom instruction, improved student attendance rates, greater teacher accountability and modern, well-equipped school buildings combine to build on the momentum generated by structural change.

The modest 4 percent to 6 percent gains city students registered on this year's NAEP exams show that's not happening yet, and educators need to figure out why. This will be the greatest challenge facing the next schools CEO, and the city board of education's search committee ought to be making a point of seeking out candidates with serious, practical ideas about how to address the barriers to achievement that Mr. Alsono's reforms left in place.

The city can never truly prosper nor attract the young families it seeks if it can't do a better job of educating its children. Without in any way denying the great strides that have already been made, Baltimore's future will remain bleak unless it finds a way to provide schools that adequately prepare a vastly larger proportion of its young people than it does now.


To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.