Student math achievement has long lagged behind reading in Maryland, and this year’s results on the annual spring PARCC tests highlighted the continued failure of schools to come up with a better way to teach the subject.
While English proficiency rose by 2 percentage points to 43.7%, math scores fell or stayed flat at every level of elementary and middle schools, according to state education data released Tuesday.
Overall, only a third of students in grades three through eight passed the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career math tests, a drop of 1 percentage point. It’s the state’s worst math performance since 2015, the first year the test was administered.
“We have some good news to celebrate, but we have some real work to do in terms of our mathematics results,” said State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon.
Maryland is not alone in declining math results, school board member David Steiner said.
“This is a national trend," he said. “The research community doesn’t understand the results.”
Baltimore County math scores took one of the largest nose dives in the state, with a nearly 4 percentage point drop in grades three through eight since last year. Overall, only 26.5% of its students passed the math test in elementary and middle school. The test is scored on a scale of 1-5, with four and five considered passing.
Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl L. Williams did not try to downplay the poor results. He said the results indicate, “we have to re-examine our practices.” Specifically, he called for a “complete overhaul” of the math curriculum.
For a second year in a row, Baltimore City saw solid gains in English, a promising sign as CEO Sonja Santelises makes literacy her priority. Still, the city’s school system ranks last of the state’s 24 districts. Most of Baltimore’s public school students come from poor families, a predictor of low test scores.
Roughly one in five Baltimore third- through eighth-graders passed the English PARCC, up about 2 percentage points from last year when 17.5% scored proficient. In 10th-grade English, scores increased: 16% passed, compared to 13.8% a year ago.
“That really does give us positive momentum to build on. It is definitely confirming the focus that I’m hearing from classrooms and seeing when I visit schools,” Santelises said. Still, she added, "we clearly have a long way to go.”
The city held roughly steady in math, where about 14% of students passed in elementary and middle school. Like the state, Santelises said, the city is digging into its math data to see why more progress wasn’t made.
After five years, the unpopular and difficult PARCC test is going away, being replaced with a much shorter version partly written by Maryland teachers that is intended to be just as hard. While scores have inched up, no more than 45% of the state’s elementary and middle school students were ever able to pass either math or English, a disappointment to school officials who hoped to see steady improvement as teachers got better at teaching the high-level material.
The PARCC tests were an attempt by national education policy makers to raise standards across the board at a time when 70% to 80% of students passed their state tests but still weren’t prepared for college or to enter the work force.
The test was designed to align with the Common Core standards, and Maryland has left those standards in place. The PARCC test has been widely criticized because it took more than a day to administer and disrupted school schedules. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vowed to get rid of it.
Maryland’s State Department of Education is introducing its new, shorter test this fall and spring. Salmon did not respond to requests for an interview about the test results.
A stubborn achievement gap has persisted over the years between students of different racial groups, increasing slightly in some subjects. “That is tragic,” Steiner said, because it means earning gaps and opportunity gaps are likely to continue as well for those students.
Statewide, scores for Latino/Hispanic students and black students in elementary and middle school in English went up about 2 percentage points, bringing both demographic groups into the high 20s. That leaves a roughly 30 percentage point gap between those students and white students. Asians scored 14 points higher than white students.
Students learning English as a second language progressed significantly since the test began in 2015. In that first year of PARCC assessments, 2.9% passed the English test in third through eighth grade. This year, 8.4% did.
Pass rates among disabled students remain in the single digits. About 8.4% of elementary and middle school students with disabilities passed the English test, up 1 percentage point from last year.
Baltimore County’s performance on Algebra I and English 10 declined over the five years of PARCC testing, as did results in English for grades three through eight. The county has hired an outside firm to examine its math curriculum and make recommendations.
By contrast, since PARCC was introduced in 2015, city elementary and middle school students made significant progress. While they started off much lower, their overall growth exceeds every other county in the region except Carroll County.
That progress hasn’t extended to high schools, however, with English 10 scores plummeting over the five-year period and Algebra 1 staying relatively flat.
Santelises says the district is using an $11 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to dig into adolescent literacy. While the district revamped its English curriculum for lower grades, that same effort hasn’t yet gone into high schools.
“We have a challenge in the city with adult illiteracy, and that’s coming from somewhere,” she said. “We have not figured it out at the scale we need to.”
Some city schools saw large gains since PARCC began. At Lakeland Elementary/Middle in Southwest Baltimore, math and English scores have gone up more than 20 points since 2015.
“A number of schools are really moving the needle,” said Principal Najib Jammal. “That’s exciting to see.”
Jammal credits his community’s collaborative spirit for the boost.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County sends dozens of “math coaches” to work intensively with struggling Lakeland students. The rotating cast of undergraduates work with breakout groups of students who need a push to understand material taught in their math classes, with strong results.
“Its comes down to how you look at data and work as a team to really figure out what’s going to move the needle and how do you support our students,” Jammal said.
Williams said his school system’s staff will analyze the results to see whether problems lie with how the curriculum is taught or the curriculum itself. In a letter to the school community, Williams presented charts highlighting the large disparities between racial groups.
“We can and must do better. Every one of our children is capable of learning, and it is our job to support their academic success. I am committed to leading change that gives every student the opportunity to learn at higher levels,” he said.
State data comparing the county results with other districts shows Baltimore City is the lowest performing district in the state. Baltimore County is also ranked well below the state average in every test. Of the 24 school systems in Maryland, county students are 19th in English for grades 3 through 8 and 18th for math in those grades.
Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said the mixed results show the need for greater resources.
“It’s clear that if we want to see greater improvement, we must push for greater investment in our schools,” Bost said.
Among school systems in the Baltimore area, scores for third- through eighth-graders varied:
• In Baltimore City, 19.7% of students passed English, a 2.2 percentage-point increase, while 14.1% passed in math, holding largely steady.
• In Baltimore County, 36.8% of students passed English, a 1.4 percentage point increase, while 26.5% passed in math, down 4 points. That drop in math was among the biggest declines in the state.
• In Carroll County, 60% of students passed English, a 2.5 percentage-point increase, while 53.5% passed in math, a decline of 1.8 percentage points. Just like last year, Carroll outperformed the rest of the region overall, and was among the top performing districts in the state.
• In Harford County, 47.8%of students passed English, up 2.4 percentage points, while math scores went down 1 point to 39.5% passing.
• In Anne Arundel County, 48.9% of students passed English, up 1.8 percentage points, while 37.2% passed in math, down about 1 point.
• In Howard County, 58.4% of students passed English, up 2.1 percentage points, while 47.8% passed in math, down about 1 point.
The state has in the past released detailed demographic data — for every school and district — along with initial PARCC scores but did not this year.
The state education department plans to further analyze the scores based on race and socioeconomic status.