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Keep the faith in Baltimore schools' success

The uphill path of progress is rarely charted in a straight line.

Last week's news that test scores for city students declined, in contrast to steady gains over the prior three years, does not detract from our confidence in the direction of Baltimore City Public Schools — and it should not detract from yours.

Test scores are one part of our measurement of school quality and progress, but we also see ample evidence pointing to a school system that is deeply committed to student improvement and to delivering real results.

We see proof of that commitment in the nonperforming schools that have been closed in order to redirect resources to new schools better suited to support students' learning. We see it in the expansive engagement of parents and community members in our schools. We see it in the choice of schools now available to all middle and high school students, which allows parents to vote with their feet and select the school they believe will be best for their child.

We see it in the rapidly dwindling number of school dropouts: a 60 percent decrease over three short years. We see it in the enrollment numbers, which increased for three successive years — an unprecedented vote of confidence in the public schools by families — following four decades of shrinking enrollments.

We also see it in the greatly expanded pre-kindergarten program that prepares young children for school and creates a pipeline to success. We see it in the creative new options opened up for students who are over-age but still willing to work toward a high school diploma. And we see it in the statistics that show that gains at the high school level have been largely driven by progress among African-American young men, a population often written off by our society — but not by our school system and its current leaders.

But what about this year's test scores?

One year of data does not illustrate a trend. The context in which this year's Maryland School Assessment scores must be viewed is this: Reading scores dropped 3.4 percentage points in the most recent year, but they advanced 12.3 points over the last four years. Math scores showed a one-year decline of 4.9 percentage points but a four-year increase of 13.6 points. We believe the trend of several years shows a positive direction driven by sound strategies and strong leadership.

Baltimore City Public Schools has wisely declined to speculate on specific schools' results before taking a rigorous look at the variables that might have contributed to the test results. We have confidence that the examination of test scores will occur with the same transparency and resolve demonstrated recently when cheating on tests was discovered at several schools.

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso's strategy has been clear from the outset: empower principals and teachers to perform in an environment that promotes creativity and accountability, and empower parents and students to make informed choices about which principals and teachers are taking best advantage of that freedom. Radical reform of this kind demands a culture change, and it is extraordinary that Baltimore has witnessed significant test score increases in three of the four years of this work.

An unexpected drop in MSA scores, coupled with the discouraging news about cheating on the tests, is undeniably concerning. We look forward to hearing a full explanation from city schools on both counts, after thorough examination of all the data. But we are certain that city schools will perform that examination and explanation while relentlessly pursuing excellence for all our students. We expect, and they deserve, no less.

Diane Bell-McKoy is president and CEO of Associated Black Charities. Mark Fetting is chairman and CEO of Legg Mason Inc. Both are trustees of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Tom Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. His e-mail is twilcox@bcf.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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