More Maryland public school students passed their annual reading and math tests this year in nearly every grade, but the news was especially good for black students, who made greater progress than whites.
Across the state, 70 percent of African-Americans are now passing the Maryland School Assessments in grades three through five. That figure is still well below the 89 percent pass rate for white students, but the gap is getting smaller.
"That is something to celebrate," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, who said Maryland has done far better than many states in shrinking the gap.
This year in Maryland, 372,000 students in grades three through eight took the tests as part of the requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The percentage of students passing the MSA increased in most grades, although scores were flat in third-grade math and fourth-grade reading.
Middle-schoolers - students in grades six, seven and eight - improved their scores slightly over the past year, but they are still far behind the elementary students. Only 57 percent of eighth-graders passed the math test, while 68 percent passed reading.
Statewide, 81 percent of students in elementary grades passed the reading and math tests, and at dozens of elementary schools more than 95 percent of students are passing the tests.
The increase from year to year is getting smaller, officials said, because so many students already are scoring well.
Among the test results:
Of the top 10 highest-scoring elementary schools in the state, four were in Montgomery County, three were in Baltimore County, two were in Anne Arundel and one was in Howard County, according to an analysis by The Sun of composite scores.
In the metro area, Carroll Manor in Baltimore County had the highest composite pass rate, according to the Sun analysis. At Carroll Manor, 98 percent of students passed the state tests. An additional 162 elementary schools throughout the state had 90 percent or more of their students passing the tests.
Baltimore City scores rose in every grade and subject in elementary schools this year, and fourth- and fifth-grade math scores saw double-digit increases. In middle schools, scores increased slightly but are still far below the statewide averages. Less than half of city middle-schoolers passed any of the tests in seventh and eighth grades.
While every student is given his or her scores, the tests are particularly crucial for schools that are held accountable if they do not make progress every year for all students and groups of students such as minorities and those for whom English is a second language.
Lags in African-American achievement have confounded educators nationwide as they try to comply with federal legislation that holds schools accountable for raising standards for minorities, special education students and children from low-income families.
Not only did the number of black students passing the test rise quickly in the state, so did the numbers of students in other groups. Special education students have started to make good gains in the early grades, apparently the result of more of those students being put into regular classrooms.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she thinks minorities are doing better on the tests because their teachers are demanding more of them.
"We think in a lot of instances there have not been the expectations," Grasmick said. Students and schools with high percentages of minorities weren't expected to do as well academically as children in predominantly white and suburban schools. She noted that some schools, such as George Washington Elementary and the Crossroads School in Baltimore, and Sandy Plains and Woodmoor elementaries in Baltimore County, have been able to make gains by raising the bar.
Jennings, while praising the improvements, said the state must redouble its efforts to make the gap between black and white achievement disappear.
Grasmick pointed out that middle school results for students of all races remain a problem for school systems across the state.
"We still have more challenges in the middle schools," she said. In the past year, changes have been made in training for middle school teachers, and many systems are focusing on putting more qualified teachers in those years rather than working on the assumption that any elementary or high school teacher is prepared to teach the quirky age.
Those changes, she said, should begin to be seen in test score increases in the coming years.
Across the state, most school systems increased their scores overall, but there were numerous instances of dips in scores in particular grades in reading or math.
Anne Arundel County saw modest gains, with the best performance in fourth grade. Among those students, 92 percent passed the state reading test - 2.2 percentage points more than the year before. In math, 93 percent of fourth-graders rated proficient or advanced on the state test, about 2 points more than the previous year.
Third-graders dropped slightly in math performance, but fifth-graders made solid gains in math, where 87 percent of them are proficient or advanced.
Anne Arundel County school officials were relieved to see that some of the 39 schools that were at risk of failing state standards increased the numbers of students who passed in math and reading.
"We were happy to see that there was not this big downturn that we had feared," said Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell.
However, Maxwell said some of the schools are still in precarious positions and their small student enrollments make them vulnerable for huge swings in performance in coming years.
"Every year the bar rises, and we've been able to sustain growth in most of our schools even as that bar goes up," he said.
In Carroll County, test scores rose overall, with double-digit increases at several elementary schools and perfect fourth-grade scores for reading and math at Mechanicsville Elementary in Gamber. Some elementary schools also experienced double-digit slips in numbers.
Overall, "I'm generally satisfied with the scores," said Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "We did very well again."
Noteworthy gains in reading were made at Mount Airy Elementary School, where scores for fourth grade had dropped significantly last year because some tests were invalidated after cheating was discovered. The average third-grade reading score for Carroll schools was 84 percent, with 89.8 percent for fourth grade and 84.4 percent for fifth grade.
For math, the average scores were 86.4 percent for third grade, 92.3 percent for fourth grade and 87.3 percent for fifth grade. The fifth-grade reading and third-grade math scores dropped slightly from the previous year.
The elementary school numbers exceeded state averages for all three grades. For middle schools, the average reading score for sixth grade was 88.5 percent. Seventh- and eighth-grade averages stood at 83.5 and 79.2 percent, respectively.
Scores for Harford County elementary schools exceeded the state average with 85.3 percent passing, compared with the state's 81 percent. The fifth-graders showed gains in math with an increase of 6 percentage points but showed a drop of about 1 point in reading. Meanwhile, all of Jarrettsville Elementary School's fourth-graders passed both the math and reading exams.
Harford County students showed modest improvements in elementary school reading scores. Dr. Carolyn Wood, the school system's supervisor of accountability, said results were in line with last year's.
"We've had a gradual upward trend starting in 2003, and we hope that trend continues," Wood said. "But we haven't had enough time to examine it in depth."
Overall, scores increased slightly in Howard County, which kept the county among the state's best in student achievement.
For the first time in the school system's history, every subgroup was able to meet the county's stringent standard of scoring 70 percent proficient in reading.
The school system saw a slight decrease in fifth-grade reading and third-grade math scores this year. The county's biggest gains were made at the fourth-grade level.
"Overall, fourth grade across the system looks the best," said spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "It is the strongest."
Sun reporters Gina Davis, Arin Gencer, Brent Jones, Ruma Kumar, Madison Park and John-John Williams contributed to this article.