Maryland students’ reading scores on a key national exam declined this year, new data shows, mirroring a troubling trend apparent in dozens of states.
The drop comes as the state’s education advocates are gearing up for a major legislative battle over how schools are funded. The latest test scores, they say, are proof that Maryland must take dramatic action to revamp its education system or watch its students fall further behind.
The results are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally-mandated test that’s referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. A sampling of fourth and eighth graders are assessed every other year.
About 35% of fourth-graders in Maryland scored at or above “proficient” in reading this year, compared to 40% in 2017. The drop was less significant in eighth-grade, where the percentage fell from 38% to 36%.
Across the country, 17 states saw average fourth-grade reading scores drop since 2017, and 31 states experienced a decline among eighth-graders.
“Every American family needs to open The Nation’s Report Card this year and think about what it means for their child and for our country’s future," Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “The results are, frankly, devastating.”
Maryland ranks near the middle of the pack, compared to other states. The state superintendent declined through a spokeswoman to comment.
Baltimore data shows a more dismal picture.
The city continues to rank near the bottom in reading compared to students in other large urban school districts, many of which also struggle with the impact that high poverty and crime have in the classroom.
In reading — where just 13% of city fourth-graders and 15% of eighth-graders are “proficient” — Baltimore ranks ahead of only Milwaukee and Detroit. The district held relatively steady from 2017.
David Steiner, a state school board member, said the concentrated poverty in these urban districts does not check itself at the schoolhouse door.
“But that can be no excuse for anything other than rigorous expectations for all students,” he said. “We’re actually seeing widening gaps and that really is extremely discouraging.”
Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises has increased its focus on literacy, placing reading coaches in certain schools and rolling out a new English curriculum. The district invested in additional training for teachers in kindergarten through second-grade, using it to refresh them on key concepts like phonics.
After seeing the NAEP results, Santelises said the district needs to remain laser-focused on that core work.
“We have some of the foundational elements in place that we still feel good about. Clearly, I want them to take hold at a faster rate," she said. “When you’re trying to shift whole systems that have been under-educating kids for awhile, it’s going to take some time.”
An analysis of the city’s scores shows that the difference between the academic achievement of black and white Baltimore students widened over the last decade. White fourth-graders score, on average, 36 points above their black peers in reading.
The district recently passed an equity policy aimed at shrinking the gap and ensuring all kids have access to high-quality education.
Math scores across Maryland did not decline in a statistically significant way. In 2017, 39% of fourth-graders hit the mark, down from 42% in 2017. In eighth-grade, the proficiency rate remained level at 33%.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, first administered in the 1990s, is the only national test that allows states’ educational achievement to be compared. About two dozen cities, including Baltimore, also opted into a program that tests a wider sample of students and provides more specific results.
The state in 2015 saw a historic drop in scores that education officials partially attributed to the fact that the state previously excluded too many special education students from taking the tests. Maryland went from one of the top-performing states to the middle of the pack.
There are stark differences between how Maryland children who come from poor families perform versus those who do not.
Scores among the 27 urban school systems that opt into the broader testing program remained relatively stable this year.
Washington’s test scores proved to be a rare bright spot among that group of districts, where results went up across three of the four reading and math categories.
Santelises said senior district leadership plans to visit the District of Columbia school system Thursday and will share best practices.
On the same day the scores were released, a group of education advocates met in Annapolis as part of the state’s Kirwan Commission. The group has put forward a $4 billion education funding proposal that would increase teacher salaries, bring in more counselors, improve career preparation programs, give extra support to schools serving children who live in poverty and expand free, full-day prekindergarten.
But the expensive plan faces some powerful opposition and funding hurdles.
Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said Wednesday’s news is proof of “why we have to look at the Kirwan Commission and not get distracted by anything else.”
“We have to provide the funding our students deserve,” she said.
Steiner, who is also a member of the Kirwan Commission, said the United States is “treading water” when it comes to student achievement. Meanwhile, other countries are accelerating.
“We believe the entire system has to be rethought, redesigned, so the quality of education is simply far more elevated,” he said.
While the reading results from this national assessment caused some alarm, the opposite was true when Maryland released the scores from its statewide standardized test earlier this year.
On the annual Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, Maryland students posted their worst math results since the exam was implemented in 2015.
The results on these two assessments should be more aligned, so the reading stagnation surprised some people.
The PARCC scores — which showed that only a third of students in grades three through eight passed the PARCC math tests — prompted immediate calls for change, with state education officials promising to dig into the data and re-examine how the subject is taught.
It’s unclear now whether the NAEP reading results will ignite a similar debate.