Pupils across the state showed steady but marginal improvement on their annual math and reading tests, earning little praise yesterday from state education leaders, who were displeased with lagging middle school scores.
The percentage of pupils passing the Maryland State Assessments in third through eighth grade rose in every jurisdiction in the state. But the gains in middle schools were not large enough to ensure that all school districts will meet the federal standards requiring all pupils to pass the tests by 2014.
"Every single system has improved in the aggregate," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools. "However, what is improvement is not necessarily satisfactory."
Passing rates are high among elementary school pupils - in some cases as high as 80 percent and 90 percent - but scores decline as they move into middle school.
To pass, a pupil must score at the proficient or advanced level.
Close to 80 percent of third-graders statewide are passing the math and reading tests, but among eighth-graders, 67 percent are passing reading and 55 percent are passing math.
"When we see these graphs, I caution us not to pat ourselves on the back," said state board member Jo Ann Bell.
Grasmick said she plans to provide training for more principals, a priority for several board members who think scores will rise only if schools are better run. Grasmick also said she will convene a task force to focus on improving middle schools.
Middle school achievement has been a thorny issue for more than a decade, and scores on the previous state tests stalled in the eighth grade.
In 50 elementary schools across the state, 100 percent of the students in at least one grade passed the reading or math test, and many counties had half a dozen elementary schools where more than 90 percent of pupils routinely pass the tests. Those schools tend to be in well-off areas, but some city schools with large numbers of poor children are also posting high percentages.
The scores released by the State Department of Education yesterday are an important accountability measure for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is designed to narrow the achievement gap for poor, minority and special education pupils.
Maryland educators said yesterday that pupils in those categories are still far behind the state average but are improving faster than pupils in the rest of the state.
For many pupils, the tests appear to be easy, and national groups have questioned why the scores are so much higher on the state test than on national tests.
Gary Heath, the state administrator in charge of testing, said the state test was designed so that it could eventually be passed by all pupils, as the law requires.
Summit Park Elementary School in Baltimore County was the highest-scoring elementary in the region by most measures, and Benfield Elementary in Anne Arundel County was second.
Most of the top dozen elementary schools were in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Two were in Howard County.
Some elementary schools in Baltimore also posted high scores. At George Washington Elementary, which has many poor and minority pupils, 80 percent to 90 percent of pupils in many grades passed the tests.
Among middle schools, small schools tended to do best. Howard County's tiny Clarksville Middle had the highest eighth-grade reading scores, and KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a charter school in Baltimore, had the highest eighth-grade math score.
An ebullient Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore schools' chief executive, called yesterday "a grand and glorious day for Baltimore City's public school system," saying pupils had scored "off the charts, if you will." Copeland announced Monday that she would step down from her post July 1.
Math scores increased in every grade in the city, but reading scores were flat or rose slightly.
Copeland lauded the city's third- and seventh-graders for making bigger gains on the reading and math tests than the average gains statewide. But the city's test scores remain 10 to 20 percentage points below the state average in the elementary grades.
School board Chairman Brian D. Morris acknowledged some deficits. "We have now seen progress every year for the last seven or eight years," he said. "There will be some who characterize our progress as not fast enough, but the progress is undeniable."
Middle school scores remained poor. Heath said the seven middle schools the state had targeted for takeover did not make significant progress and that in some cases scores went down.
Chief Academic Officer Linda Chinnia, noting seventh-grade gains in reading, said, "We were bold this year, and we did something different in the middle school, and you saw the results of that in seventh-grade literacy, as well as the seventh-grade mathematics."
At the three schools the state took over years ago and turned over to for-profit Edison Schools Inc. to run, scores declined in nearly every grade. On average, the Edison schools are scoring below the city schools' average and far below the state average.
Baltimore County pupils maintained or improved scores in all but two grades, with negligible declines on the third-grade math test and on the fourth-grade math test.
Overall, the schools exceeded the state averages on every test but third- and fifth-grade math.
"Our preliminary review looks like our student performance is very stable," said Brice Freeman, a spokesman for the school system. "We continue to make steady progress, so we're pleased about that."
The county's biggest challenge was eighth-grade math, which was passed by 56.8 percent of students, a 5.2-point increase.
Pointing out that improvements in middle school scores in Baltimore County and statewide were often muted, Freeman said, "With the older students, more improvement needs to be made."
Several county schools posted big gains. At Woodlawn Middle School, the percentage of seventh-graders passing the reading test jumped 18 points, to 52 percent, and the percentage of seventh-graders passing the math test rose 22 points, to 50 percent.
A few schools posted big drops. At Logan, Dundalk and Sandalwood elementary schools, the percentage of third-graders who passed the math test dropped at least 26 percentage points.
Overall, Howard County elementary schools exceeded state standards, with 88 percent of pupils passing in reading and 84 percent in math.
"We are very proud and happy with the results we have received," said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
Cousin said there is still "considerable work to be done" in helping African-American, Hispanics and special education pupils, and those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. But each group showed improvement, he said, including a 13-point jump, to 64 percent passing the math test, from 2004 to 2006 among African-American pupils receiving free or reduced-price lunches
Harford County pupils showed strong improvement in math, with an increase of nearly eight percentage points in its eighth-grade test scores. The percentage of middle school pupils passing the math test was up 5.3 points in sixth and seventh grades.
"Math is an area where we had real concerns, and we are seeing across-the-board improvements," said Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. "Statewide math scores were up three points. We were up eight. That is stuff you get excited about."
The scores mean that North Harford and Aberdeen middle schools could be removed from the state's needs-improvement list, Haas said.
Harford County had "more ups and downs" in the reading scores, Haas said. Reading scores dropped 2 percentage points for Harford's sixth-graders, and the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders who passed increased 4.1 and 4.9 percentage points respectively.
Although 100 percent of third-graders at Darlington Elementary passed the reading test, scores among third-graders countywide were flat.
At the elementary level in Harford, the percentage of pupils passing the math test rose modestly.
Anne Arundel County
As elsewhere, test scores were up or unchanged in reading and math for every grade tested in Anne Arundel County.
"I am very pleased to see that our students have performed exceptionally well on this year's test," interim Superintendent Nancy M. Mann said in a statement. "For the third consecutive year, overall performance is up."
Fourth-graders did especially well, with 89.7 percent passing in reading and 91 percent doing so in mathematics.
At the county's only charter elementary school, Knowledge is Power Academy in Edgewater, which enrolls only fifth-graders, scores were the lowest in the county, with 42.6 percent passing in reading and 44.4 percent passing in math.
Although middle schools made gains overall, those gains were modest. The percentage of eighth-graders scoring proficient was unchanged from last year.
At Chesapeake Science Point, a Hanover charter school that focuses on math, science and technology, pupils performed better on the reading portion of the test than on the math section, though scores on both sections were in the top half of middle schools in the county.
African-American and Hispanic pupils made larger gains than white pupils in nearly every category in the county.
Most Carroll County schools showed modest improvements, but testing violations at two elementary schools skewed the fourth-grade reading scores.
Some fourth-grade scores at Linton Springs Elementary and Mount Airy Elementary were disqualified after the cheating was discovered. Two teachers resigned last month after local officials said the pair had circulated copies of questions from the reading test.
"I'm pleased that our elementary math program seems to be doing well," said Steven Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Carroll County school system.
The average reading score for Carroll County schools was 81.9 percent for third-graders and 87.4 percent for fifth-graders. The average math score was 88 percent for third-graders and 84.6 percent for fifth-graders.
In middle schools, the average reading scores far exceeded the state average at 83.6 percent for sixth-graders, 82.9 for seventh-graders and 77.6 percent for eighth-graders.
Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt, Josh Mitchell, John-John Williams IV, Sumathi Reddy, Anica Butler and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.