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In the second year of Maryland's Star ratings of public schools, scores shifted toward the middle, with the highest and lowest ratings awarded to fewer schools.

More public schools in Maryland earned an average rating this year — with fewer high fliers and low performers — under a state accountability system that for the first time included science test scores and the results of school surveys of students and educators.

The state rating system, introduced last year, gives schools one to five stars based on a variety of criteria — from student achievement on tests and attendance to whether students are offered a well-rounded curriculum.

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A third of all schools received three stars this year, up from about a quarter last year, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun. Both the number of top schools — with five star ratings — and the number of failing schools — with one star — decreased.

“This is, in this history of the state, the clearest accountability of schools that we have ever had,” said Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon.

In 2018, some 60 percent of schools received four or five stars, but this time 55 percent earned the two highest ratings. On the other end of the rating scale, far fewer schools — two dozen of about 1,300 in the state — were given only one star. About half those schools were in Baltimore City.

In the second year of Maryland's Star ratings of public schools, scores shifted toward the middle, with the highest (5 stars) and lowest (1 star) ratings awarded to fewer schools than in 2018. (Source: Maryland State Department of Education)
In the second year of Maryland's Star ratings of public schools, scores shifted toward the middle, with the highest (5 stars) and lowest (1 star) ratings awarded to fewer schools than in 2018. (Source: Maryland State Department of Education) (Christine Zhang/Baltimore Sun)

While the school rating formula added the survey of students and educators as well as elementary and middle school science scores for 2019, it’s not clear whether those caused the changes in this year’s ratings. Not enough analysis has been done to determine what contributed to the shifts, said Dara Shaw, the Maryland State Department of Education’s director of research.

While some critics expected the survey to offer a rosy view of schools, the survey results provided a more nuanced picture of how students feel about their teachers, their fellow students, drug use and bullying. Teachers also offered what some officials called sobering concerns about the culture and safety of their schools. All students in grades five through 11 took the online survey.

“Students feel a little less favorably about their schools than educators did,” Shaw said.

Overall, students rate their schools a five out of a possible 10. Students said they had good relationships with their teachers, but they ranked the relationships between students in their school as a 3. Both students and educators seemed most concerned about their school’s safety and, in some cases, the physical condition of the facility.

Students on average rated their physical safety as a 3.5 compared, while educators had a slightly more favorable view of their schools.

Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said the survey “is validating what we are hearing.” She said schools need more school counselors, psychologists and smaller class sizes so that behavior is better and students feel safer.

In a year when education funding is likely to be at the top of the Maryland General Assembly’s agenda, the shift in ratings could add fuel to the debate over whether state and local governments should spend $4 billion more a year by 2030. The school spending increases are aimed at improving achievement for students and elevating Maryland’s public school system to one of the best in the nation.

In the Baltimore region, Baltimore County showed the largest decline and Anne Arundel County the largest improvement over last year. In Baltimore County, 34 schools dropped to three stars from four. Six county elementary schools dropped to four stars from five. Only three county schools improved their ratings. Cromwell Valley Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary went to five stars from four and Johnnycake Elementary went to four stars from three.

Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams called the report card “a conversation starter,” adding he sees it “as an opportunity to improve.”

“I’m happy that we have 85.5% of our schools rated with a star of 3 or 4 or 5 and I’m glad that we’re really focusing on our school progress plans, specifically around our literacy and math,” Williams said.

But there’s more work to do and schools need to use the results to maintain what’s working and change what isn’t, Williams said. For example, he said, some could see how they can “get some improvements or some growth on the math [test] particularly, as well as in the English Language arts.”

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In Anne Arundel, the number of schools with four star ratings doubled to 48, and its schools with five stars also increased. Anne Arundel County Superintendent George Arlotto credited the gains to the district creating a better system to track elementary health education. That allowed those schools to register more points for well-rounded curriculum in the state rating system, improving their star ratings.

“It is a matter of placing supports and professional development to our schools — with now a year under our belt — and knowing what the report card was going to monitor and report on at the schoolhouse level," Arlotto said.

The number of one-star schools in Baltimore City fell by about half, in part because the district closed some of its lowest performing schools. But fewer schools earned four or five stars than last year; only one school — Baltimore Polytechnic Institute — received the coveted five star rating this year.

About 84 percent of city schools were given two or three stars. Overall, slightly more city schools added a star to their rating than lost one.

Baltimore City schools chief Sonja Santelises said she is pleased that the number of one star schools decreased.

“For us the addition of the survey data in lot of ways was verification of some of what we had been hearing. It reaffirmed that most of our secondary students find the learning environment challenging,” she said.

The school system has put behavior and academic supports in place. In addition, staff in the secondary schools are working on developing better relationships with students.

Two schools stood out for the number of total points they earned: Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County earned 90 points out of 100 and Academy of Health Sciences at PGCC in Prince George’s County received 94 points. To be rated five stars, high schools must earn at least 78 points.

Maryland’s accountability system, which was required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, is a more holistic look at schools that is less dependent on student test scores than past rating systems. The Maryland General Assembly, in a law passed in 2017, said achievement and test scores could count for no more than 62 percent of the overall rating.

That frustrated some school board members who now believe that low-performing schools are being let off the hook. On the other hand, the new system has been applauded by others who see it as giving more weight to a school’s ability to lift the achievement of children living in concentrated poverty. The rating system gives points for schools whose students make significant progress, even if they can’t pass the state standardized tests.

Children’s test scores generally correspond to their parents’ income levels, with wealthier students scoring better on tests than students from low income families. Next year for the first time, the state said it will have a system that allows comparisons between schools with similar demographics.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Wilborn Nobles and Naomi Harris contributed to this report.

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