Results released last week showed Baltimore County public schools made slight improvements in students' performance in reading and mathematics as measured by the annual Maryland School Assessments.
Students in third through eighth grade take the mandatory MSA exams in the spring every year.
The 90-minute exams include questions requiring multiple choice and written responses and are taken over a four-day period, two days for math and two for reading, according to the Maryland Department of Education's website.
The students' results are ranked in the categories of basic, proficient and advanced.
The totals of those scoring as proficient or advanced are combined to show the percentage of students in a particular class who passed.
In Baltimore County, 74 percent of the county's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders scored as proficient or advanced in mathematics compared with 72.5 percent last year.
But in reading, 81.7 percent of those students scored as proficient or advanced compared with 82.9 percent last year.
"On a state-wide basis, middle-school scores are down from last year," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.
He said some of the challenges facing students in middle school include having to change classes more often, a disruption of their regular social circles and facing more difficult classes, such as introduction to algebra.
Gene Schaffer, chairman of the education department at theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County, said subjects that were taught on the high school level 40 years ago are now being taught in middle school.
He said that accelerated approach came about nationally after the realization in the 1980s that the United States had lagged significantly behind other countries when it came to teaching math and science.
Students at the three middle schools that draw from the Catonsville area showed improvement over their counterparts from the year before.
But the percentage of the eighth-grade class in 2012 that passed was lower than that of the seventh-grade class in 2011, which was lower than that of the sixth-grade class in 2010.
"It's tough being in middle school because it's a time of enormous growth, intellectually, physically," Schaffer said. "Just growing up is an enormous challenge. You're going through a lot of changes."
The Philadelphia native, who has been at UMBC for 11 years, said that growth does mean some advantages for middle school students.
"They are able to think about, and perceive, lots of things," he said. "They can organize large groups of data."
A father of three, the youngest now a junior in college, Schaffer said middle-school students were the group he taught the most and he enjoyed teaching.
"But for the kids themselves, it's a very stressful time," he said. "They're making an enormous developmental leap.
"Everybody is maturing at different rates," he said. "Kids are now very aware of each other."
He said the specific challenge to teaching sixth, seventh and eighth has only recently been recognized in Maryland. Teachers in Maryland are now trained for teaching in that particular field and certified by the state to teach those age groups.
Success in early years
Several area elementary schools recorded highest-recordable scores on the tests last spring.
Hillcrest Elementary School's third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes each scored at 95 in both reading and math.
The third-grade class at Westchester Elementary also had at least 95 percent pass the math test.
Scores higher than 95 are no longer released. Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, said that federal privacy laws do not allow scores higher than 95 percent to be reported.
Percentages above 95 would make it easy to identify the very small number of students in that particular grade at that specific school who did not pass, he said.
In mathematics, 90.8 percent of the county's public elementary school students scored as passing, compared with 88.8 percent last year.
In reading, 90.7 percent of county public elementary school students scored as passing, compared with 88.2 percent last year.
"We have a lot to celebrate in Baltimore County," said county schools SuperintendentS. Dallas Dancein a news release. "Our overall student performance continues to be strong, and when we examine subgroup performance we see healthy growth in the percentage of students scoring at proficient and advanced levels."
Baltimore County outperformed Montgomery County in the percent of elementary students scoring proficient or advanced in mathematics but trailed Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties in elementary school reading and middle-school mathematics and reading.
But Schaffer said several factors must be considered when looking at the scores.
"One of the things you have to look at is the stability of the population. That's one of the things that impacts schools," he said.
The second thing, which is less acknowledged, is how often teachers change," Schaffer said. "Secondarily, you have to look at how often they're absent. You also have to look at student absenteeism." .
State, county and local school MSA data are available on the Maryland State Department of Education's website at http://www.mdreportcard.org.