While students around the state showed progress on the Maryland School Assessment, Baltimore City not only experienced a setback this year with declines in math and reading, but several dozen of the district's schools were among those that performed the worst in the state.

The lower scores in Baltimore were posted during a year in which the city beefed up its testing security after cheating was discovered at several schools.

In an impassioned speech to principals and education advocates on Wednesday, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso — who is expected to renew his contract — said the scores over the past seven years show that the "progress has been real" and that to question that is "an injustice to our kids."

He also said, however, that it would be "naive to think that changes in [test security] didn't have an impact."

In the city, 61 percent of students are proficient or advanced in math, a decrease of about 5 percentage points from 2010. The share of students reading at proficient or advanced levels in the district is at 69 percent, a drop of 3 percentage points from last year. The district noted drops across all grade levels and subjects, with the exception of seventh-grade math, which remained flat.

The 2011 scores come on the heels of Alonso's proclaiming that they would be the most "transparent scores of any urban district in America," after the city tightened test security this year, spending nearly $400,000 to hire monitors for every school.

Last week, Alonso announced that two schools had cheated on the state assessments in previous years. As first reported by The Baltimore Sun, two elementary schools, Abbottston and Fort Worthington, were found to have tampered with state test booklets in 2009 and 2010. Fort Worthington was among six schools in the city that had 20-point drops in reading and math this year.

It was the second year in a row that Alonso had come forward to acknowledge cheating on the assessments; last year, a state investigation found that George Washington Elementary, a National Blue Ribbon school, had cheated on the 2008 assessments.

According to a Sun analysis of state data, of the 50 schools in the state that noted the largest score drops, 45 were from the city. In addition, 19 schools recorded drops of at least 20 percentage points in math or reading; six of those schools saw 20 percentage point drops in both subjects.

In addition to Fort Worthington, the schools that had the 20-point drops are: Bay-Brook Elementary; Bluford Drew Jemison STEM West Academy; Callaway Elementary; Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary; and the Knowledge and Success Academy.

Facing the first significant decline of his tenure, Alonso called the scores "unacceptable."

Until last year's flat scores, the city was experiencing gains of up to 7 points and 8 points a year, a trend the schools chief called "extraordinary" for a large, urban district. But experts in urban education say the city is also experiencing the dip that is eventually felt throughout similar districts.

"We've got a number of analyses which indicate that even districts that show substantial long-term gains, five years or more, there is at least one or two years in that cycle where the district sees a dip in their scores," said Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the nation's 66 largest urban public school systems.

Casserly also said that declines of 3 and 5 percentage points are not statistically significant enough to read into. "You almost never see these trends move upward in a straight line," he said. "If they do, it's more reason for suspicion."

Eight city schools have been referred to the state for investigation this year, Alonso said, and four others were already under investigation. At least five of the eight have a clear explanation for declining scores, he said. Another five schools are still being scrutinized, he said. Citing fairness, he did not name the schools but said they should not be presumed to have cheated.

The district is doing a school-by-school analysis of what could have contributed to significant drops. Alonso said a number of variables, such as poor instruction, a significant number of schools' testing a small number of students, new programming and even high turnover among teachers, could contribute to a school's drop in scores.

"We need to own the results as the results, because it would be too easy an out for me to say the scores dipped because we put in testing protocols," he said. "That absolves the system from the responsibility about what needs to happen in classrooms."

Sonja Santelises, who took over as the school system's chief academic officer last year, said she was disappointed by the results. She said that while the district had zeroed in on professional development for teachers and principals this year, the scores show that "we have a lot of work to do about teaching and learning and it is now an issue of adapting practice in the day-to-day."

When the state test was first given in 2004, about one in three city students passed the math test, and not even half of the test takers were reading proficiently. Since then, the number of students reading at proficient levels has jumped by 20 percentage points in reading and 28 points in math.

Alonso said he also was disappointed that he couldn't report double-digit increases to a city that had rallied its poor, minority students through years of against-the-odds successes.

"The story of growth over time is not diminished — it's indubitable," he said. "I didn't place a monitor in every school to find schools cheating. … I wanted to say that the progress is real."

The 2011 scores place the city even further below the state average, and further from catching up.

The MSA was administered to 365,000 students throughout the state in grades three through eight. The test fulfills the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act, used to determine if students of all sub-groups are making adequate yearly progress. The law requires that 100 percent of students score proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Maryland elementary and middle school students continued a strong eight-year trend of making steady progress on the tests, noting gains in reading and math on this year's assessments.

The state's elementary school students are nearing 90 percent proficiency marks on state reading assessments, after noting a small gain from last year to 88 percent. The number of students scoring proficient on elementary school math tests remained flat at 86 percent.

In middle school, the percentage of students scoring at proficient levels in math and reading also rose slightly. Proficiency levels in middle school reading rose to 84 percent, and mathematics rose to 74 percent.

Though scores remain fairly steady in the 80s and 90s in surrounding counties, significantly fewer schools made adequate yearly progress targets set under federal law. School leaders blamed the rising goals of No Child Left Behind. The trend was consistent throughout the state.

Baltimore County schools made slight improvements in both reading and math at most grade levels measured by the MSA, taking steps back only in sixth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. Preliminary numbers showed 22 schools failing to make the progress goals for the first time and 21 in school improvement, officials said.

In her last release of the state's MSA results, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the results of the state assessments demonstrated that "the state continues to do incredible work on behalf of its students."

While 258 schools failed to meet annual yearly targets for the first time this year, a number of schools in several districts have 90 percent or more of their students making proficient or advanced marks, state officials said.

Grasmick, who will retire Thursday after leading the state to a No. 1 ranking by Education Week three years in a row, attributed strengthening instruction statewide to the stark uptick in the number of students scoring at advanced levels, when compared to 2003.

This year, the proportion of elementary school students reading at advanced levels is 35 percent, more than double the share eight years ago. More than half of the number of middle school students who are proficient in reading are also at an advanced level. Both groups noted similar gains in advanced mathematics marks, though Grasmick said that middle school math still needs improvements.

"We want to accelerate rather than stay stable," she said.

She said the state found districts that struggled this year were those undergoing system-wide transformations. "I think until all of the structures are in place, sometimes the instructional programs are not front and center," Grasmick said.

Grasmick said that the state also needs to continue to work toward closing the achievement gaps.

But, in this time of emphasizing greater accountability, state officials find themselves in the odd position of being unable to release as much testing data as they have in previous years.

That's because federal regulators say the privacy of individual students could be compromised by test results released for very small sub-groups.

If a school only has eight special education students in the third grade, for example, a parent of one of those students could deduce, based on reported results, what the other students in the group scored on a test. That means this year's results won't include specific numbers for many small sub-groups and that, in some cases, the public might not learn where a school failed to make adequate yearly progress.

"It will be a concern at the school level," said a state Department of Education spokesman, Bill Reinhard. "At the system level, not really."

Leslie Wilson, the state's director of testing, said that for several years, she did not believe the federal government intended to enforce the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in this way.

But then, one of her colleagues attended a conference where Maryland's testing website was used as an example of what not to do. Later, a technical advisory team from the U.S. Department of Education came to Maryland to tell state officials how to bring their website into compliance.

The greatest absurdity might lie ahead. According to No Child Left Behind, the goal for all schools is 100 percent proficiency by 2014. But privacy regulations would prevent reporting of this achievement, because it would let the public know that every individual student scored well on the test.

"It seems so ludicrous," Wilson said.

An earlier version of this story reported an incorrect number of city schools that recorded drops of more than 20 percentage points in reading or math, or both subjects. Also, the total number of city schools that have been referred to the state for cheating investigations was incorrect. Eight have been referred this year, in addition to four schools already under investigation, for a total of 12. The Sun regrets the errors.

Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker, Julie Scharper and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.