State and local education officials struggled Wednesday to explain historic declines on national math and reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, after Maryland became the first state ever to record significant, across-the-board drops.
State education officials chalked up some losses to the fact that more students with disabilities took the test compared to previous years. But test administrators questioned that theory, saying it likely made only a small impact.
Maryland saw losses between 2 and 8 percentage points in reading and math proficiency scores for fourth- and eighth-graders compared to 2013, the last year the test was given.
The state's losses were so dramatic that the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP exam, ran an analysis of the findings.
"This is the first time that we have seen a state significantly decrease from one assessment year to the next in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading," said Grady Wilburn, a statistician at the center.
After years of Maryland being ranked among the highest in the nation for education, the results of the assessment — also known as the "Nation's Report Card" — put the state in the middle of the pack nationwide.
Maryland officials said they are still dissecting data but insisted that the higher rate of inclusion of special-education students is "part of the answer."
NAEP officials suspected that Maryland's 2013 scores had been inflated by as much as 7 percentage points after Maryland excluded special-education students from the reading exam.
For example, 66 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities were excluded from the reading test in 2013 — far higher than the national rate of 16 percent. State officials said they changed that practice this year.
Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement that omitting special education students had been a "major disservice" to the state, parents and students. The Republican governor said the new scores "reflect a level of transparency not seen in a long time and are a wake-up call for Maryland."
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Maryland's scores "good news" because they reflected a commitment to including students with disabilities.
Wilburn said inclusion of more special-education test-takers likely made only a 1 or 2 percentage point difference in reading scores. He said data showed every demographic group in Maryland did poorly.
Two years ago, 45 percent of Maryland fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading. This year, that fell to 37 percent. Math proficiency dropped from a 47 percent to 40 percent pass rate this year. Eighth-grade scores declined as well.
Jason Botel, executive director of the advocacy group MarylandCAN, said the state should focus on the fact that achievement gaps on the tests have grown wider among groups including white students, minority students and low-income students.
"In the few cases that the gaps have narrowed, it is not because the children of color have improved their score but because the white students went down," he said. "I don't think there is any positive way to look at this."
"Regardless of the impact of [special-education] exclusion rates, the results of this year are a cause of great concern," Botel said.
Baltimore was among 21 urban school districts across the country that separately reported NAEP scores.
The city noted its worst-ever performance this year, posting significant decreases in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math.
Eleven percent of the city's fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading this year, down from 14 percent in 2013.
In math, fourth-grade scores dropped 7 percentage points, with 12 percent scoring proficient compared to 19 percent in 2013. Eighth-grade math scores fell from 13 percent proficient in 2013 to 12 percent.
Overall, the city outperformed only Detroit in terms of urban districts, while cities such as Washington posted gains. Cleveland saw increases, including a 7 percentage point jump in fourth-grade reading.
City school officials noted that Baltimore also increased special-education inclusion rates — but officials did not attribute score declines to that fact.
Schools CEO Gregory Thornton said in a statement the scores were "a call to action."
Sonja Santelises, a vice president for the national nonprofit advocacy group The Education Trust who served as chief academic officer in city schools from 2010 to 2013, said she the district doesn't necessarily need to look at drastic reforms or shifts in practice.
"While we do need urgency, there's also a need to focus on a strategy," said Santelises, who was credited for helping increase city reading scores on the 2013 NAEP. "What this should be triggering to all of us is that we have whole populations of kids in schools who clearly aren't being touched by all of the shifting that has already taken place."
The results come at a time when Thornton's administration is facing criticism for lacking academic vision and failing to follow through on reforms for the city's special education program.
This week, the city school board requested an update on a promised literacy program, One Year Plus, for students with disabilities.
"These scores are a sad reflection of the fact that instruction for students with disabilities has been terribly neglected," said former school board member and special education advocate Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman. "The district should be getting better, but lately it's been getting worse."
Meanwhile, both city and state officials say they will sift through several data sets in the coming weeks, including results of new, more rigorous state assessments, to pinpoint where students are falling short.
"Our primary focus always has to be on state test," said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. NAEP, he said, "is another bit of information to help us solve the puzzle."