More than half of Maryland students failed to meet standards for English and algebra on new statewide exams, a result officials called both expected and shocking.
"Obviously, this is a cold shower," said Chester Finn, a recently appointed member of the state Board of Education. "There's a lot of work to be done."
The first results of testing on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests — introduced as part of sweeping educational changes begun several years ago — showed only 31 percent of students met the standard for Algebra I and 40 percent of students met the standard for 10th-grade English.
While no group of students scored particularly well, the PARCC test results released Tuesday highlighted wide disparities in achievement, including low levels of performance for special education students, minorities and the poor.
Only a quarter of African-Americans, 7 percent of special education students and 23 percent of students who qualify for subsidized lunches met the benchmark in English. The worst performance was by students learning to speak English, many of them immigrants. Only 2.3 percent of those students were proficient.
Results were worse in math. Only 20 percent of Maryland students met the standard on Algebra II. Less than 6 percent of African-Americans met the benchmark.
"That grieves me," said state school board member Stephanie R. Iszard. "Where do we go from here?"
Board member Michele Jenkins Guyton said the results "look pretty horrific," and questioned whether the state should even send out individual reports to parents showing how their children performed. Seventy percent of parents would be told their students are not meeting the standards in math, she said.
"We are going to have serious morale issues," she said.
The tests were graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 for students who exceeded expectations and 4 for those who met expectations. Three, 2 and 1 meant students failed to meet expectations.
Among racial groups, Asians outperformed everyone else. Sixty-two percent met the standard for both Algebra I and English. Fifty percent of white students passed English and 45 percent passed Algebra I.
Parents will get their children's scores this fall. The state is scheduled to release scores for individual high schools Nov. 5, and scores for grades three through eight in early December.
Maryland, and 41 other states have moved to the Common Core standards over the past several years. The new standards are designed to ensure students who graduate from public high schools are able not just to get through their high school coursework — nearly 90 percent of Maryland students now graduate — but are prepared for the workplace or for college.
The PARCC test was created by a consortium of states including Maryland, and is billed as more difficult than high school assessments put into place in 2003. Because of the change, state and local educators had been bracing for what they expected to be dismal first-year results.
While many lamented the results, others said the tests — given last school year — realistically show how far behind many high school students are from the new benchmark.
"Why are we here?" asked the interim state superintendent of schools, Jack R. Smith. "Because we raised expectations considerably."
Smith said he believes scores will get better over time, just as they have on nearly every new test initiated in the past two decades.
One school board member, James H. DeGraffenreidt, said the PARCC scores confirm what other measures have already indicated. With half of high school graduates in Maryland needing remedial classes before they can take credit classes at a community college, he said, it is not surprising that only 39 percent of students can meet the English standard.
David M. Steiner, executive director of the new Institute for Education Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, called the results "sobering, but deeply unsurprising."
"It highlights the historic gap in this country between what we've asked for and what is necessary for students to move on to any further educational or career opportunities," he said.
Despite the small numbers of students meeting the standard, Maryland students actually did better on the English test than those in Arkansas, New Jersey and New Mexico and about the same as those in Massachusetts. On the Algebra I test, Maryland students scored worse than students in Massachusetts and New Jersey, but better than students in New Mexico and Arkansas.
Organizations representing school superintendents, community colleges and the University of Maryland system issued a joint statement saying they are committed to higher standards, and "lower than expected scores ... are not a cause for alarm."
State officials called the results a starting line. For this year, they will not be used as a high school graduation requirement or in teacher evaluations.
In fact, the state school board will have to set a passing standard for each of the new high school tests. Because so many students are not meeting expectations, the board will have to decide whether to allow a lower level of achievement to serve as a "passing grade" in the coming years, when the tests become a graduation requirement.
Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said the results would be used to help improve the curriculum and to provide time for students during the school year and summers to catch up.
He said school systems in Maryland may begin sharing their curricula to help improve instruction.
Gov. Larry Hogan, in a statement reacting to the PARCC results, said he believes there is too much testing. On Tuesday, he appointed a dozen members to a panel created by the General Assembly to investigate how much testing is required on the local and state level.