Nearly 90 percent of Baltimore elementary and middle schools fell short of academic targets on state assessments this year, signaling a trend that education officials nationwide say will eventually label most American schools as failures.
Only 15 of the 141 city schools met federally mandated progress goals in math and reading on the Maryland School Assessments, according to state and city school data. And the schools that didn't meet the adequate yearly progress goals included some of the highest-performers in the city and the state, illustrating the continuing debate about the embattled No Child Left Behind Act.
"It's a crude measure and an unsophisticated system in that it tarnishes schools with the same brush," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan group that has tracked the nation's progress under the law since its inception. "It's one of these things that everyone knows there's a problem, but no one has figured out how to fix it."
The federal law, passed in 2001, requires that 100 percent of America's students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. In arguing to overhaul the law, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it "fundamentally broken," and his department projected that 80 percent of schools would not meet the goal next year.
The percentage of city schools that failed to meet AYP — 89 percent of schools — drastically rose when compared with previous years. Last year, 60 percent of schools tested in grades three through eight failed to meet the targets; 45 percent fell short in 2009.
Jennings said he knew of only a handful of districts that had as high a percentage of schools that did not meet the goal as Baltimore. But despite the federal law's flaws, he said, the district should take seriously the number of schools and students that fell short this year.
"The general message is still a sobering message," he said. "As a country we wanted to move to proficiency for all students. What this is showing is that a large number of kids in Baltimore City are not achieving proficiency, and that should be of concern to all of us."
Since he arrived four years ago, Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso has consistently denounced AYP, though he acknowledged that it still causes angst in school communities throughout the city. He said that because the city's overall scores fell this year — 3 percentage points in reading and 5 in math — the system paid even less attention to how many schools made the goal.
"I think that an arbitrary standard that is not reflective of progress being made at the school level is always going to be unfair," Alonso said. "And in a year when progress came to a standstill, AYP was almost irrelevant to me.
"But we will get to a point in a year or two where there are no schools making AYP; we are getting to a point where regardless of the school, they will be considered failing. That is very problematic."
And it's a problem that is felt throughout the state. This year, 55 percent of the state's schools met AYP, compared with 70 percent last year, and 258 Maryland schools missed their targets for the first time. Seventy-six more schools joined the state's school improvement list, meaning they failed to make the academic goals two years in a row and are on watch for interventions.
When the results of the MSAs were announced, state officials said that they expected the number to continue rising, and that even the highest-performing districts like Montgomery County, where the majority of schools now exceed 90 percent proficiency, will hit a ceiling.
In Baltimore County, the number of schools that failed to make AYP targets also rose. This year, 34 percent of schools fell short of their targets, up from 25 percent in 2010.
"It is important to note that in 2011, only one Baltimore County middle school was added to the 13 already on the state School Improvement list," school system spokesman Charles Herndon said in an email. The school system is "just beginning to explore" the reasons for school performance on the MSAs, he said.
In order for a school to make AYP, all subgroups must achieve a standard set by the state on the MSAs. Each year, the state is required to raise the standards, called annual measurable objectives, to gradually move toward the 100 percent goal.
The subgroups include students by race, such as black or Hispanic; socioeconomic background, such as children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches; or special-education students. Student attendance is also a factor.
In the city, seven charter schools and seven traditional schools made AYP this year, in addition to Lois T. Murray Elementary, a special-education school that took an alternative school assessment.
Anthony Japzon, principal of Medfield Heights Elementary, said he and his staff were pleased that the school maintained its high scores and its record of making AYP, particularly in a year when the district had a crackdown on testing security.
"We feel that this validates the work that we do here: high expectations in academic achievement and behavior for every single student," Japzon said. He said, however, that "our staff views the MSA and meeting AYP as minimal standards, and as one snapshot to measure the success of our students."
State officials identify special education as Maryland's biggest challenge. And a small number of special-education students caused several of the city's highest-performing schools to fall short of the goal. Among them was Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, which also noted 100 percent proficiency in two grade levels this year.
"Naturally, I was disappointed, but I would have been devastated if I saw decreases or didn't see increases," said the school's principal, Carolyn Cole. "I don't look at it as failure. I just look at it as a concern of improvement in an area of special education, and a conversation for our teaching staff."
Alonso said that he believed the district's stepped-up test monitoring after recent cheating investigations could have been a factor in some schools failing to make AYP in special education. Those students are allotted special accommodations, such as verbatim reading of the tests or extra time.
"In an area where there may have been room for accommodations," he said, "we created this environment that we were so conscious about that line, people didn't go to it."
Despite the flaws of NCLB, city school leaders take the missed targets seriously.
"It only took one or two children not doing as well as we had hoped, but we're looking at the whole picture," said Edna Greer, principal of Leith Walk Elementary, which did not make AYP in special education. "We do not get to pick and choose, and we don't differentiate between children. We have to make sure all of our children are at the levels they should be."
Leith Walk, which tests and serves one of the largest general and special-education populations in the city — the overwhelming majority of whom are poor and minority — has consistently posted high proficiency marks. This year, the scores were in the 80s and 90s.
Greer said her staff has begun to pull students' individualized education plans and will comb through the data to figure out where special-education students fell short.
"It just means we have to go back to the drawing board," Greer said. "We get all bent out of shape about test scores sometimes, but the main thing is that the kids are learning."
While Alonso says that's the kind of philosophy he wants to see adopted throughout the district, he added that there are still a number of schools that will continue to be negatively affected by the AYP pressure.
"There will always be a set of consequences related to this, but we have always tried to be incredibly flexible," Alonso said. "When the standard labels a school as not achieving, and that school is actually making progress for kids, it can be incredibly harmful to the culture of the school."
As a result of this year's results, the city now makes up 40 percent of the state's school improvement list. Schools on the list have not met AYP for two years in a row. There are 77 city schools on the list, 31 of which could be subject to radical reforms in the coming years, such as overhauling their curriculums and staff.
Five city schools went into the MSA tests knowing that their staffs' jobs and their schools' structures were on the line. The city school board voted in March to approve drastic improvement plans for the schools to begin implementing this year if they didn't make AYP. None did.
The decision sparked a debate among school board members about whether the district will be in complete unrest by 2014 as more schools are targeted for mandated interventions.
City school board Commissioner David Stone recommended during the debate that the city reject the federal dollars — about $133 million, which accounts for 13 percent of the school system's $1.2 billion budget — to be exempt from requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.
"I think that the important thing is that the system be the main judge of whether schools are successful, not one test from 50 miles down the road," he said.
"We can't be held hostage on goals that are unachievable. I know there are schools on that list that did many of the things who anyone in education would say were best practices, so to say they're not doing their job is just a shame."
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.
City schools and AYP
The following elementary and middle schools were the only ones in Baltimore to meet adequate yearly progress goals this year:
•Baltimore International Academy
•Baltimore Leadership School For Young Women
•Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary
•Lois T. Murray Elementary
•Mary Ann Winterling Elementary at Bentalou
•Medfield Heights Elementary
•Mount Washington Elementary
•Northwood Appold Community Academy
•Tunbridge Public Charter School