Most of the Baltimore region's high school students aren't on track to be ready for college courses or jobs when they graduate, based on the first round of scores on new state tests.
District and school results from the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness tests in math and English released on Thursday show students are underperforming in both subjects.
School officials predicted the poor showing, which they said reflected rising expectations for students over the past several years.
High School students took the PARCC test for the first time last spring in three subjects: 10th-grade English, Algebra I and Algebra II. Some middle school students were tested in Algebra I.
Students were assessed on a scale of one to five. Those who scored a four or five are on track. The state is trying to ensure that any student who graduates from a Maryland high school will be able to go to a community college without having to take remedial classes.
Particularly alarming were the results for math. For years, Maryland students have underperformed in the subject, but just how far behind high school students are in the Baltimore region became clear with the release of results.
In no school district did more than five percent of students earn a top score of five.
Fewer than half of students in the Baltimore region scored four or five in Algebra I.
Baltimore City and Baltimore County had far fewer students meeting the mark than other counties. Only 9 percent of city students and 22 percent of county students met the standard for Algebra I. That compared to nearly 47 percent in Harford County, 45 percent in Howard County, 43 percent in Carroll County and 39 percent in Anne Arundel County.
The reasons for the showing in both subjects are varied, school officials said. They believe teachers have not yet adjusted to a new curriculum — introduced three years ago — that requires more analytical thinking.
Instead of filling in bubbles, students are now asked to complete many more steps in their calculations, to write, and to read and analyze passages.
"We knew this was going to be a more rigorous test," said Jason Dykstra, executive director of instructional data for Anne Arundel County. "We were going to be asking kids to do different things on this test."
Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents the majority of teachers in the state, urged caution in interpreting the results.
"It's a mistake to draw firm conclusions from a single data point, especially when students, parents and educators want the conversation ... to go far beyond labeling them with a score based on unproven and disruptive standardized tests," she said.
Officials say test scores will improve over time, as they have with every other test they have introduced.
But test scores have rarely been this low on other tests, and surprised even some superintendents.
Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said he was worried by the math scores. Only 3 percent of students in the county got a four or five on the Algebra II test.
Baltimore County students did better on the SAT than the Algebra II exam.
"Algebra II is alarming to me," he said. "I personally did not expect it to be harder than the SAT."
Dance has taken steps aimed at improving math instruction, including altering the course sequence. Instead of teaching geometry between Algebra I and Algebra II, as most districts do, Baltimore County had taught the two Algebra courses back to back.
Dance said he's also taking measures to improve teaching in the middle schools.
More than half of Carroll and Harford county students and 45 percent in Howard County met or exceeded the standard in English. Thirty-nine percent of students in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and 28 percent in Baltimore met or exceeded the standard.
School officials across the rest of the region described the scores as a new baseline for their students.
Baltimore City schools CEO Gregory Thornton said the results were "not unexpected," but "highlight that we have work to do to ensure that our schools are preparing students for successful futures."
The city's scores were among the lowest in the state, and trailed state averages significantly.
In English, 30 percent scored a one — the lowest level.
One city school — Baltimore Polytechnic Institute— had among the highest percentages of students scoring fours or fives in the state, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis.
Principal Jacqueline Williams stressed that Poly emphasizes rigor across all subjects, particularly math and science, but also seek to produce well-rounded students.
In addition to offering the Ingenuity Project, a premiere science, technology, engineering and math curriculum and instructional program, the school also boasts instruction in four languages and 27 Advanced Placement classes. The school has more than 40 clubs, focused on areas such as aviation and 3-D printing.
"We stay under the gun a lot, but we get quality kids and this is all a testament to having an all-star team, a stimulating academic curriculum and offering a well-rounded education," Williams said.
Other area schools with high percentages of students scoring fours or fives included Centennial High School in Howard County, South Carroll High, Liberty High and Manchester Valley High in Carroll County, Chesapeake Science Point in Anne Arundel County and Fallston High, C. Milton Wright High and North Harford High in Harford County.
Scores at some other high schools might have been depressed because their highest-performing math students took Algebra I and Algebra II in middle school.
Download the raw data as released by the state here.