Maryland students overall showed a lackluster performance on their annual state tests this year, with many large school systems showing no gains in reading and modest increases in math in the elementary grades.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said that some school systems have such a high percentage of students passing the Maryland School Assessment that great leaps are difficult now.
"Twenty-one of our counties are at 80 percent, and you are not going to see huge increments of progress," she said.
Statewide, more than 80 percent of the 350,000 students given the test are passing both math and reading in the elementary grades, although math scores have lagged behind in the middle grades. In some counties, 90 percent of students are passing in many grades and subjects. Baltimore County, for instance, has 90 percent of its fourth-graders passing math and 90 percent of its fifth-graders passing reading.
Grasmick said she was pleased with the results overall because the state did not lose ground. "I think holding our own and showing significant progress" is good, she said.
In addition, she noted that the achievement gaps between poor, minority and special education students that were so wide in 2003 have narrowed significantly. For instance, the difference between African-American and white students in middle school reading has decreased by 17 percentage points in the past seven years.
School officials had worried that results would be dampened by the blizzards of 2010, which kept students home for as many as nine days this winter. But Grasmick said she doesn't believe so, particularly after consulting with testing experts who have analyzed the scores.
"I tend to believe it is not a factor," said Anne Arundel County Superintendent Kevin Maxwell. "Our kids in Anne Arundel have been actually getting more time than they were a couple years ago, and I just don't think we should make excuses."
The progress for city students was disappointing compared with last year, when the school system saw dramatic improvement. "I like to hit triples and home runs, and I think this is a single," said schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "It puts us in a position to continue to score."
For the first time in recent years, the city saw slight declines in reading in the early grades, although math scores improved.
Education officials did find some cause for celebration in the state's elementary math scores, which rose slightly. Grasmick said she believes that state grants helped elementary school teachers bone up on their skills in math.
Though math scores have always lagged behind reading, "math is catching up, and I think it is on fire," she said.
Roger Plunkett, an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County, said math has become an area of greater focus in his county as well as across the state.
He said that the reading scores, on the other hand, have not seen an increase and the county is revamping its language arts curriculum this year. "There are no statistically significant gains in the reading," he said. "We are fully prepared to address the flat scores."
For many of the highest-performing schools in the state, the pass rates are now well in to the 90th or 95th percentiles, and it has become difficult for them to increase the rates much more. Even with that progress, the number of schools that have failed to meet the federal targets is growing.
About 30 percent of schools in the state fall into that category this year, a rise that is the result of tightening federal standards. But as states around the nation, including Maryland, move to a common curriculum and a new national test in 2014-2015, school systems will have to prepare students for tougher assessments.
Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said the state should begin encouraging school systems to focus on how many students have scored in the advanced category rather than just passing the MSA. Some educators believe that those figures are a better indication of how many students are likely to pass the new tests when they begin in four years. About 46 percent of fourth-graders score advanced in math and 53 percent in reading.
He said that the state needs to move forward with reforms it has proposed before the new tests start, including a new teacher evaluation.
"Progress has clearly stalled," he said.
In Baltimore County, sixth-graders showed significant gains in both math and reading. In math, the number of students passing rose 4 percentage points from 72 percent to 76 percent.
But the county's seventh-grade scores were stagnant or declined. In eighth grade, which has been a problem for years in both the county and the nation, scores remained essentially flat, rising 1 percentage point in math and falling 1 point in reading.
Plunkett said, however, that the county had been closing the achievement gap in the past several years, particularly with poor students and those learning English.
Baltimore City's scores held steady from last year in the number of students in grades three through eight performing at proficient or advanced levels in math and reading, and maintained some of the district's highest proficiency levels to date.
The city's overall percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced in reading remained the same as last year at 72.4 percent. In math, there was an overall 3-point increase from last year, to 66 percent, the highest level ever in the district.
Alonso said he had few disappointments with the city's scores, though the district essentially remained stagnant. He said that while the improvements weren't dramatic, they "signal strength as we go forward."
According to a Baltimore Sun analysis, a number of city schools continue to trade off with Prince George's County for the bottom scores in the state.
But, with the exception of eighth-graders, city middle-schoolers saw the most significant gains across the board in reading and math. Most notable was the gain of 7 percentage points in sixth-grade math.
Eighth grade showed slight decreases in both categories — less than 1 percent — and Alonso said that the school system had "hit a bump" in its eighth-grade curriculum.
City elementary students continue to outpace their middle school counterparts on the assessments in both subjects.
But city elementary school students struggled with reading this year.
There was a 3-percentage-point decline in the number of third-graders reading at proficient levels, and a 2-point decline in the number of fourth-graders doing so. Fifth-graders' scores had a slight decline.
Alonso said the school system has "hit a ceiling" with elementary school reading curriculum and needs to refocus on innovative ideas to engage students in literacy.
The percentage of city students who are scoring advanced continues to grow, doubling what it was three years ago.
"The growth in the advanced [scores] is really gratifying for me," he said. "For so long it's been about remediation."
Baltimore Sun staff reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.