Three years after Maryland began to hold public school students to higher standards, results of English and math assessments released Tuesday show students have made only slight progress and less than half statewide passed the tests.
In grades three through eight, 41 percent of students passed the English test, while only a third passed the math assessment. The pass rate for English rose slightly, from 38.7 percent to 40.6 percent. The percentage of students passing math dropped slightly, by less than 1 percentage point, compared to a year ago. The test is called the Partnership for Assessments of Career and College Readiness, or PARCC.
About half of Maryland 10th-graders passed the PARCC English test and 36.5 percent of those students who took Algebra I passed. State officials plan to require successful completion of those tests as a condition for graduation, but haven't yet decided what the score should be.
"The continuing story is that only about 40 percent of our students are on track and there still remain huge achievement gaps," state school board president Andrew Smarick said. White and Asian students are making faster gains on the tests than African-American students, creating a growing gap in achievement.
"More privileged students tend to do better at a more accelerated rate," said school board member David Steiner. "That is a problem of school systems across the nation."
Baltimore City and Baltimore County students scored below the state average. In the city, only 15 percent of students passed the English test and 11.9 percent passed the math. The pass rate in Baltimore County went down in elementary and middle school math by 1.6 percentage points, with 30.3 percent of students passing. In English, passing rates improved by 1.4 percentage points to 36.5 percent.
Even in the highest-performing school systems, less than 60 percent of students passed the tests. In Howard County, 56 percent of students passed the English exam, an increase of 2 percentage points from last year. Passing scores in math remained essentially flat at 48.1 percent.
The results were disappointing to educators who had predicted significant increases once students and teachers were comfortable with the new standards and new tests introduced three years ago. Teachers began using a curriculum aligned to the Common Core, nationwide standards that demand analytical thinking, writing and complex reading.
The PARCC grades students on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 4 or 5 is considered passing.
The results show just how difficult the PARCC test is, Smarick said, adding that the standard is designed to make sure students are on track to go to college when they graduate from high school.
"If you say college- and career-ready, that is a very high bar," he said.
Five other states — Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and Rhode Island — and Washington, D.C., administered PARCC tests this past school year. The tests' administrator has not released comparisons of the results. Results published by Washington show that a greater percentage of Maryland students in grades three through eight passed the test than in D.C., nearly 10 percentage points more in English and 4 points more in math.
In Baltimore, math scores held steady while English scores inched up. Still, fewer city students passed the exams than in neighboring districts. Only about three of every 20 city students in grades three through eight passed both math and English. Almost 12 percent passed math, about the same as last year. Fifteen percent passed English, an increase of 1.4 percentage points from last year.
"No, I'm not doing back flips over 11 percent of young people being college- and career-ready," city schools chief Sonja Santelises said Tuesday. "We have a long way to go."
Santelises, who became CEO of city schools last summer, has said the district is committed to sustained, long-term improvement in student academic achievement.
"This is the long arc," she said. "You can't expect to go from 11 percent to 80 percent. You're looking at an eight-to-10-year-plus trajectory, and that's what we've got to be in this for."
Last school year brought plenty of distractions for students and teachers, she said. The district faced a $130 million budget shortfall and the potential for widespread teacher layoffs. State and city lawmakers helped close the deficit with an infusion of cash. The deficit was driven in part by declining enrollment.
"Given all the pressure that we faced this school year, the fact that we held steady and slightly increased puts us in a good position to really accelerate improvement in the coming years," Santelises said.
City school administrators plan to roll out a new math curriculum beginning this school year. The curriculum was designed to be narrower in scope and intended to deepen students' understanding of key concepts such as fractions. Administrators are also in the early phases of redeveloping the reading curriculum.
Despite the fact that Baltimore County students' passage rate was below the state average, Verletta White, the interim schools superintendent, said she was encouraged.
"We still have some work to do, but we believe we are headed in the right direction," she said.
An analysis of the data shows that the first 10 Baltimore County elementary schools where students were given laptops — called the Lighthouse schools — significantly outperformed the rest of the school system. For instance, in grades three through five, students at Lighthouse schools scored 3.2 percentage points higher in English and 1.8 percentage points higher in math compared with other schools in the county.
The remainder of the elementary schools received laptops, as well as the training for teachers and a change in the approach to teaching that go along with them, a year after the Lighthouse schools. White said she expects to see greater increases in test scores next year, as a result.
"As a system, we hear parents and their concerns about their overall results," she said. But PARCC is just one set of data, White said, and parents should consider that indicators such as the graduation rate and SAT scores are improving. The school district is focusing on improving math scores by rewriting the curriculum, and she hopes that will have an effect soon.
Math passage rates lag because students are having to adjust to much higher expectations that require them to interpret and analyze data in addition to solving equations, White said.
Math passage rates across the state were below English scores; that has been the case with different statewide tests over the decades.
Anne Arundel County spent last year focused on improving middle schools, middle school math instruction in particular. The effort appeared to pay off. At Arundel Middle School, the pass rate in math rose 8 percentage points among sixth graders and 16 percentage points among eighth graders. Of those students who took Algebra 1, 83 percent passed. Principal George Lindley said the county gave teachers specialized training that allowed them to make math more concrete for students.
Anne Arundel's elementary and middle school math passage rates went down overall to 37 percent. In English, the passing rate rose to 48.1 percent.
This year's scores will be used in an accountability system the state school board will give to the U.S. Department of Education in September. Schools will be graded on a one- through five-star system that is based on several factors, including the test scores.
Harford County was the only county in the Baltimore region to see scores go down in both math and English. Susan Brown, director of instruction, said in a statement that the school system is still analyzing the results. She noted that students are still getting used to taking the test online rather than on paper. Last year, a PARCC analysis showed results tend to be better when students take the test on paper.
Howard and Carroll county school systems have made the most consistent progress over the three years of testing. Carroll County has seen a 10 percentage point gain in its math pass rate and a 6 percentage point gain in English. Large percentage-point gains for thousands of students are unusual.
Howard County school officials said Tuesday they were still reviewing the scores.
Carey Gaddis, spokesman for the Carroll County schools, said administrators are pleased by the upward trend. The system has the highest PARCC math pass rates in the state.
"We continue to try to raise the proficiency levels of students in all groups," she said.
Betty Weller, president of the biggest state teachers union, said schools need more money to improve.
"These scores are a reflection of the fact that our schools are underfunded. When you have class sizes of more than 30 kids to a teacher, when you have high teacher turnover rates because we underpay educators, and when you don't address the nonacademic barriers to learning in our communities of high poverty, you see these achievement gaps persist," she said in an email. "It's not enough to talk about test scores — kids are never going to test their way out of poverty."