All 24 of Maryland's school systems edged higher this year on a state test designed to force schools to meet stiff federal standards - the second year in a row of gains - but officials dissecting the results released yesterday said the performance of middle schoolers exposes a crack in an otherwise upward trend.
"We're pleased that every system has demonstrated improvement. ... The system established in Maryland is obviously working," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We still have challenges, and we've identified some of those challenges. ... I do not want to imply it's good enough."
Despite the generally positive news, hundreds of schools could learn as early as next week whether they have been labeled as failing and face sanctions because they are not improving fast enough to meet the federal requirements. State number crunchers are working out the details.
Meanwhile, scores for special education students increased significantly - in some cases doubling achievement from two years ago, the inaugural year of the federally required Maryland School Assessment. Students from a variety of minority groups, including African-American and Hispanic students, also did better.
Those scores are important, because schools can be targeted as problems if just one sub-group fails. In many suburban districts, scores were brought down by just a small number of students who didn't reach the bar.
Grasmick called the middle school scores "uneven." Seventh-grade reading scores statewide, for example, were flat. A year ago, 67 percent of seventh-graders passed the test. This year, 67.2 percent did.
"We have an issue in the middle school," she said.
Familiar trouble spot
She speculated as to why these students haven't fared as well as students in lower grades. "We have often generalists [teaching], who don't have the content knowledge. That could be contributing. We have to look at the delivery of the curriculum and the daily work of the students," Grasmick said.
Middle school student performance was also a trouble spot with the old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which was replaced by the new federally required test in 2003. The tests were given in reading and math over four days in March to students in grades three through eight. Tenth-graders took only the reading test.
Grasmick singled out Howard County for praise, calling the school system's achievement "quite stunning." Howard County was already at the top of the state. Maintaining high performance - and in some cases excelling further - is quite a feat, she said. Climbing from the lower rungs is often a simpler task.
Harford and Montgomery counties also performed well. Prince George's County and Baltimore ranked at the bottom, though both have seen steady gains over time.
Good news for city
The best news for the city was in the reading scores of third-, fifth- and sixth-graders. The scores are on the low side, but they improved at higher rates than the rest of the state.
For example, the rate of Baltimore fifth-graders who tested as proficient in reading increased by 8 percentage points to 58 percent, while the statewide rate rose 5 percentage points to 76 percent.
Statewide, the earlier grades saw the steepest gains. The percentage of third-graders in Maryland who passed the reading test jumped from 58 percent in 2003 to more than 75 percent this year.
The percentage of fifth-graders statewide who passed the math test grew from 55 percent in 2003 to more than 69 percent this year.
State officials attribute the increases to a standardized statewide curriculum, which has particularly assisted smaller districts in understanding expectations, and to a big push to educate younger children with beefed-up pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs.
"There's been a lot of work over time to improve the early childhood programs, and this is starting to show up," said Gary Heath, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment.
He said he expects to see scores shoot up in each grade as the younger students cycle through school.
The MSA is different from the MSPAP partly because the old test looked at student scores as a whole, allowing scores of the traditionally lower-performing students - special education, poor and non-English-speaking - to be masked by the scores of their higher-performing peers.
"Part of the rationale behind the federal program and Maryland's program is not to hide behind the averages," said Jacqueline C. Haas, schools superintendent in Harford County. "There's considerable pressure to be successful with every single person."
Dealing with 'old' rules
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires 100 percent of students to pass the test by 2014. At the same time, schools can be penalized by failures of some students even if most are doing well.
"We're still dealing with an old set of rules," Haas said. "Here we are trying to ask kids and teachers and schools to do something that the federal government has acknowledged probably needs to be looked at another way."
Testing the disabled
Maryland is in the process of asking the U.S. Department of Education for clearance to create a modified exam for 2 percent of the students who are designated mentally disabled, said Ron Peiffer, deputy state superintendent for academic policy. One percent of the most severely disabled are given a separate test.
Students given those modified tests would be required to pass them, but the standards would be more reasonable and achievable, Peiffer said.
Other states have also been in talks with the federal government to make similar changes.
Another discussion could come in the near future regarding students for whom English is not their first language, he said.
Because the idea of school sanctions is to find the struggling schools and work hard to improve them, Peiffer said, relaxing the rules a bit would make sense all around.
The current system is identifying some schools that by other definitions would not be considered at-risk.
"We're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said. But, "we're going to get there."
Sun staff writers Hanah Cho, Gina Davis, Liz F. Kay, Laura Loh, Sara Neufeld and Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.