The drastic, across-the-board improvements in the performance of Maryland students on state standardized achievement tests are encouraging on many levels. They continue a steady, five-year rise in test scores statewide. The gap between white and black students' scores has halved since 2003, when the state began administering the tests to gauge schools' progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And the biggest gains were in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, both jurisdictions with large poor and minority student populations.
Overall, 82.2 percent of students in third through eighth grades passed the reading test, up from 61.3 percent in 2003, while 76 percent passed the math, up from 53 percent. Scoring highest were Howard, Carroll and Worcester counties, where 90 percent or more of students passed in some grades and subjects. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties also registered solid gains.
Not only are more students passing the tests, but the number scoring in the advanced category - the highest proficiency - also increased. City middle school students, for instance, scored historic highs in reading and math. That suggests that gains made in elementary school are carrying over to later grades.
What accounts for the progress? City schools chief Andres Alonso says it's a complex mix of factors that includes schools getting smarter about tailoring instruction to kids' needs, better professional development for teachers and principals - and a sense of urgency. "We knew we needed double-digit gains, and it's not so difficult if we focus on what the kids need to know," he says. Add to that a drop in absenteeism.
Baltimore still has a long way to go to meet a federal mandate of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. The challenge is to build on the gains achieved so far. In principle, educators know what works: Kids do better when teachers do better, and teachers do better when they get the right support. That's not rocket science, but it remains a lot easier said than done.