For the first time in at least a dozen years, children in Baltimore City elementary schools are performing better on math and reading tests than their peers in some other Maryland districts, and the city is being removed from a state list of failing systems.
Students throughout the state continued to improve on the Maryland School Assessments given in March, according to results released Tuesday. But city students have made some of the greatest gains, and now score better in math and reading than their peers in Prince George's and Dorchester counties.
When the test mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act was first given in 2004, only about one in three city students passed the math test, while nearly twice as many did this year. The jumps in reading scores also have been large.
"What is really heartening is to see Baltimore join the ranks of urban school districts across the country that are seeing substantial improvements in academic achievements," said Michael Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban school systems.
City schools CEO Andres Alonso noted that the number of Baltimore students receiving "advanced" grades - the highest possible score - doubled over the past two years. Alonso celebrated the achievement at an elaborate ceremony featuring U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Abbottston Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore, where 100 percent of students passed the reading test.
In the suburban districts around Baltimore, where families have moved for decades for quality schools, the passage rate on the much-scrutinized tests remained largely high. But the improvement rate has been slowing, and some schools and grades showed slight dips.
Across the state, some pass rates are so high in some counties and at many schools that it will be difficult for them to continue to improve. About one-third of the state's 910 elementary schools have 90 percent or more of their students passing the tests. In some cases, the counties saw dips in achievement, which state officials said was normal because statistically it becomes more difficult to get every student to pass.
"As the bar continues to rise, it becomes more and more difficult for all student groups in all schools to hit the target," Howard County Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said in a statement.
Some of the increase is due to a state curriculum that was instituted about five years ago, said Leslie Wilson, head of testing for the state. The more faithfully teachers stick to the curriculum, the more likely it is that students will pass, she said.
But some Maryland state school board members questioned whether the results were cause for celebration, when other national tests don't show the same kind of gains.
Maryland students have not made improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test that samples to students in most states. About 2,500 students in the state take the examination.
"It is just not clear to me what these scores mean," said school board member Kate Walsh, referring to the MSA results. "I am not sure we can assure the public that this 85 percent proficiency [in math] means much."
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick argued that the national test is not as reliable as the Maryland examination, and that students are not as motivated to do well.
In the next year, Maryland and many other states are expected to agree to common standards and soon after that a new national test that proponents say will more accurately measure differences between states. That test would replace the MSA.
The results also show the state continues to close the gap in achievement between students of different races, a key goal of federal and state programs. The difference between the test scores of African-American and white pupils in elementary school math has been cut in half over the past six years.
In Anne Arundel County, white students outperformed black students by 13.4 percentage points in elementary reading scores in 2004. This year, the difference has shrunk to 7.6 points.
"While I have been very clear that the ultimate goal continues to be the elimination, not the closing, of the achievement gap, I am very pleased at these results," Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said. "All of us - those within our system and those outside of it - must continue our diligent work in this area to eliminate this gap for all student groups."
In Baltimore, a crowd of teachers, administrators, students and parents packed the Abbottston Elementary gymnasium to celebrate the system's accomplishments - as well as the school's.
Duncan and Grasmick joined Gov. Martin O'Malley, Mayor Sheila Dixon and others for an announcement that the city no longer needed "corrective action," a designation which means that a high percentage of its schools have not met federal standards, allowing the state to intervene in system governance.
Still, the pronouncement masked the fact the federal government requires greater signs of improvement before removing the label.
"What you are doing collectively here in Baltimore is absolutely remarkable," Duncan said. "This is a great, great day for the city of Baltimore, a great, great day for the state and for the country, but most important, for these children sitting here."
The education secretary said high expectations, talented educators and a sense of urgency contribute to creating schools like Abbottston, where "every single child is now successful."
The only decline in state scores came in fourth grade, where those passing dropped by 1.9 percentage points in reading.
Baltimore County schools spokeswoman Kara E.B. Calder - which also saw a decline in fourth-grade reading scores but gains in all other areas - said officials would examine score changes in all areas to look for patterns.
Improvement in middle schools have been much less impressive. This year, 71 percent of middle school students passed math examinations and 82 percent passed reading tests.
While Baltimore middle schoolers made larger gains than those in many other districts, only 39 percent of city eighth-graders passed the math test, and the city's students will have to improve rapidly to catch up with the rest of the state.
Alonso said he believes closing some of the lowest-performing middle schools and putting those students into the smaller, neighborhood elementary and middle schools has helped fuel progress. In addition, the system has given principals more autonomy, and the schools have gotten an infusion of cash over the past five years.
The test results, Alonso hopes, will give the school system a boost in morale. "This is a school system which has had a vision of itself as having deficits," he said.
He hopes that what he called a tendency for "self-laceration" will diminish. "It makes the unbelievable believable. ... We can look at the kids and say we are making a difference with them."
Baltimore County also saw significant improvement in middle schools, particularly among eighth-graders who had a double-digit increase in reading as well as gains in math. Seventh-graders also increased in math, but there was a small decline among sixth-graders in math.
"I feel real good about what our administrators and our teachers have been able to do," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said of the district's performance.
The rise in scores meant that 19 schools left a federally mandated list of schools that need improvement. Seven schools in Baltimore came off the list as well as two in Baltimore County and one each in Allegany, Howard and Kent counties.
But 134 Maryland schools did not meet the federal Adequate Yearly Progress standard for the first time, many of them because special education, minority or poor children in that school did not pass the test, officials said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Nicole Fuller, Jonathan Pitts and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.