Blame it on hormones, tougher standards or just the challenge of teaching rambunctious adolescents: The enviable math and reading scores enjoyed by elementary schools across the state have eluded middle schools.
The Maryland School Assessment test results released this week show that the percentage of pupils making the grade falls sharply as children move to middle school. While more than three-quarters of fourth-graders were declared "proficient" or "advanced" in math, only half of eighth-graders were.
"We are really looking at the middle school," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said, vowing to revive improvement efforts in response to "uneven" test results. "For so many years, it's just been seen as a bridge between elementary and high school."
With the mounting demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, educators nationwide are looking at everything from the middle school curriculum and classroom environment to teacher qualifications.
"Because they're not an end point or a beginning point, middle schools have been somewhat neglected in many states," said Toni Eubank, director of Making Middle Grades Work, an initiative through the Southern Regional Education Board that works with middle schools in 21 states, including Maryland. "Really, it's a national neglect."
But with the federal mandate that schools produce higher scores every year in grades three through eight, Eubank added. "Suddenly there's this very, very strong interest" in middle schools.
Maryland's middle school test scores rose in most areas tested this spring, but the improvement was not as significant as state officials had hoped. And pass rates in middle schools were far lower than pass rates in elementary schools.
For example, 52 percent of eighth-graders passed their math test, part of the Maryland School Assessment tests administered in March. That's up from the 50 percent of the same pupils who passed last year as seventh-graders. In elementary schools, 76 percent of fourth-graders passed their math test, compared with 72 percent who passed last year in third grade.
To explain the discrepancy, Grasmick, school system officials and national experts note a number of challenges confronting middle schools in the face of the federal testing requirement.
For starters, the pupils are going through puberty. According to the National Middle School Association, middle-schoolers are undergoing more physical, emotional and hormonal changes than at any other time in life except from birth to age 3.
"They're just unique beings and in a state of flux," said Barbara Hoffmann, principal at Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City. "They have one foot in elementary school and the other in high school."
Given the social pressures they face and the physical and emotional changes they experience, middle-schoolers need teachers who understand adolescent development, as well as the subjects they are teaching, say Grasmick and others.
"The most important thing you've got to have are teachers and principals who really want to deal with that age group and are well equipped to do so," said Al Summers, professional development director for the National Middle School Association.
Yet in Maryland, as in most states, teacher certification is not specific to middle school. Teachers are certified to teach in kindergarten through eighth grade or in grades seven to 12. Also, most teacher-training programs are not exclusive to middle school.
As a result, many teachers come to middle schools from elementary schools -- where they might not be accustomed to challenging students as aggressively -- or from high schools, where they "sometimes see the content as opposed to the fact that you need to reach the child," said Ilene J. Swirnow, principal of Pikesville Middle School.
Summers and Grasmick say anecdotal evidence suggests that it's tougher to recruit teachers for middle schools than for elementary schools, where the children are young and agreeable, and high schools, where subjects can be explored at advanced levels.
Grasmick said the state is exploring certifying middle school teachers separately and working with its biggest supplier of teachers, Towson University, to develop a preparation program for middle schools.
Some educators suggest that the problem may be the typical configuration of middle school. They say K-8 schools might be more effective than separate elementary and middle schools.
In Baltimore, where MSA reading scores declined slightly in seventh and eighth grades, city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said it might turn out that middle school pupils in K-8 schools perform at a higher level than those who attend traditional middle schools.
Copeland said that could be another reason to phase out the city's middle schools and replace them with combined elementary-middle schools. Such schools have fewer middle-schoolers, and she believes children there may feel a greater sense of belonging.
Education experts say middle school pupils can meet tougher academic demands if several factors are in place.
"A lot of schools, as you near the high school grades, focus a little too much on academics and not enough on personalization," said Nancy Ames of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.
Engaging middle-schoolers requires smaller, longer classes, with fewer teachers and more hands-on activities. That differs from the high school model that many middle schools emulate, said James Beane, education professor at National-Louis University in Madison, Wis.
Hoffmann said middle-schoolers learn best when they can relate to the material. "You lose them until you show them how it fits into their lives," she said.
Grasmick predicted that middle school scores will rise over time. She said current middle-schoolers haven't benefited from reforms such as prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten.
Some Maryland school systems have been tackling middle school reform. Since 2003, Baltimore County has overhauled its middle school reading program, trained several math teachers in the subject and started teaching pupils about what they need to do to go to college.
Howard County school officials toughened middle school standards in 2000, making it harder for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to advance from one grade to the next.
Worcester County made substantial improvement on its middle school tests. Seventh- and eighth-graders scored higher than they did last year as sixth- and seventh-graders.
Worcester Superintendent Jon Andes said his middle school classes average 18 to 20 pupils, smaller than most in the state. He said teachers, working in teams across subject areas, create individual profiles to identify children who need help.
The key to his pupils' high test scores, he said, is this:
"It's the ability of the teacher to form a relationship with the middle school student that makes a huge difference in the performance."
Sun staff writers Laura Loh and Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.