Less than half of Maryland elementary and middle school students passed the state's tough new standardized tests, a result school officials attribute to a major revision of teaching and testing standards.
Just 39 percent of Maryland students in grades three through eight met the reading standard set by a governing board of educators from Maryland and about 10 other states. Only 29 percent met the standard in math.
School system leaders across the Baltimore area said they believe the scores will increase quickly in coming years, as teachers and students adjust to the new test and Common Core standards put into effect by most schools three years ago. The new test is called the Partnership for Assessments of Career and College Readiness, or PARCC.
"We have set the bar high, and this data reflects that," interim State Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said in a written statement.
Smith said parents should not be too concerned if their children have not scored well on this first test, which is considered a baseline. The test, he said, is snapshot of how their child did on one test.
"I have five children, and I do not equate them to their test score," he said. At the same time, Smith said, he was dismayed at the continued disparities in achievement.
For instance, while 65 percent of Asian students passed the English test, only 23 percent of African-American students did. In addition, only 13 percent of economically disadvantaged students, and 5 percent of students who are learning English as a second language, passed.
The new Common Core standards require students to do more analytical thinking, writing and complex reading. The tests are scored on a five-point scale. Scores of four and five indicate that the student has met or exceeded expectations. A three is approaching expectations. Smith will ask the state school board to designate a four and five as passing scores in alignment with the national standard set by the governing board. A vote by the board is expected in January.
The results were not as good as for school districts in Massachusetts and New Jersey, but slightly better than those in Illinois, Louisiana and Rhode Island. Not all of the states that gave the test have released all of their data yet. Some education advocates found the local results disheartening.
"Maryland's 13 percent math pass rate for African-American students and for students from low-income families shows how many children are being left behind," said Bebe Verdery, Maryland education director for the ACLU. She said additional resources and experienced teachers will be needed.
MarylandCAN executive director Jason Botel, said he supported giving students a much tougher assessment, but he said the results make the disparities look "even more staggering," particularly in the city schools.
"The structure of city schools might need to be different, might need to change," he said. "I think these results show how aggressive we need to be in terms of doing things differently."
Even in school districts such as Howard County, where students have generally done well, less than half of students passed math. Baltimore City scores were the lowest in the region. CEO Gregory Thornton said the results "overall are concerning."
In the city, Anne Arundel, and some other counties, educators were pleased that third grade scores were among the highest of any grade. Those students, they said, have been given the Common Core curriculum since first grade.
Harford County had some of the best results. It ranked first or second in reading among school systems in the state; its students scored higher than they did on the old assestment tests. County officials attributed this to a strong curriculum and better teacher preparation.
"We put our teachers and students up against any in the state," said Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum and assessment in Harford.
Carroll County students had significantly higher pass rates on math than the other suburban Baltimore counties. Baltimore County schools had higher scores than the city, but lower than the other suburban counties, particularly in math. For instance, less than 14 percent of sixth-grade students in the county and less than 28 percent of fourth-grade students passed math. In reading, less than 50 percent of students passed. In Baltimore City, in all grades less than 20 percent of students could meet the expectations. In math, that dropped in some grades to 10 percent.
Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said he expects scores to increase by the 2016-2017 school year as teachers grow more comfortable with the new curriculum.
"If you talk with teachers ... they are feeling more confident with it now," Dance said.
Dance blamed the low pass rates, in part, on the fact that when he arrived three and a half years ago, the school system had not yet aligned its cirriculum with the Common Core curriculum, a step most school systems had taken. Dance then hired and fired a company to do the rewrite, setting the county even further behind. Dance said he will analyze the math data and make any needed curriculum changes.
Dance also attributed the low scores to leadership changes across the state in the past several years. There have been three state superintendents — two interim — in the past five years, and nearly every school district in the Baltimore region has a new superintendent.
Despite the overall poor results, schools in the state that were predictably high performers continued to show better results, indicating that students' socioeconomic backgrounds infuence test results. The new test provides a finer-grained look at individual school achievement. A smattering of schools in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Howard counties had grades in which more than 75 percent or 80 percent of students scored a 4 or higher. For instance, Severna Park Elementary, located in a high-income area, had 85 percent of its third-graders and 92 of its fifth-graders passing the reading test. At Shipley's Choice in Anne Arundel, 94 percent of third-graders passed.
In Baltimore County, Summit Park, Franklin and Timonium elementaries had high pass rates. In Baltimore City, elementary and middle schools including Hampstead Hill, Hampden, Mount Royal, Mount Washington, Tunbridge and Thomas Johnson continued to be high performers.
Schools that did poorly — and there were many — had less than 10 percent of their students passing. In addition, they sometimes had large numbers of students failing with a 1, the lowest score. In the city, 52 percent of students got a 1 in eighth-grade math. Such low scores indicate that the majority of students will have to make large gains in achievement before they are able to pass the test.