Baltimore Polytechnic Institute has been pumping out top math and science students for more than a century. So perhaps it isn't surprising that the elite city high school has the highest pass rate of any in the region on the state's tough new Algebra I exam.
But those Poly engineers don't do badly in English either. Overall, the school ranks in the top five in a Baltimore Sun analysis of performance on the two exams among schools in the Baltimore region. Other high schools at the top include suburban powerhouses Eastern Technical High School and the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, both in Baltimore County, and River Hill High School in Howard County. Chesapeake Science Point, a small charter school in Anne Arundel County, came in fourth.
The Sun analysis averaged the 2016 scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, to produce a single passing percentage for each elementary, middle and high school in the region. The figure represents a school's overall pass rate for all grade levels on both the reading and math tests. Each school was then ranked.
While some superintendents and teachers have questioned the validity of the test and whether students are prepared for it, others say that schools whose students are performing well on the PARCC are doing something right.
The PARCC tests are giving educators "some of the most reliable data we have seen," said Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN, a nonprofit that works for education reform. "It is data on an assessment that has been very carefully created against career and college standards."
The Sun's analysis of PARCC performance found the top elementary schools in the region include Shipley's Choice, Benfield, and Folger McKinsey in Anne Arundel County, Clarksville in Howard and Carroll Manor in Baltimore County.
The top five middle schools include Folly Quarter, Clarksville Middle and Lime Kiln in Howard County, Severna Park in Anne Arundel and Fallston in Harford County.
More analysis of the data is needed to tell what is driving the strong performance in some schools, Botel said. He said educators should be looking at whether groups of students who aren't passing are improving in large numbers each year.
"We want to be honest about the fact that statewide and citywide we have to improve the gaps along racial and economic lines," he said.
Maryland education officials have been disappointed by achievement statewide on the new tests, which replaced the Maryland School Assessments two years ago. In most grades, fewer than half of students are passing the exams, the state's results have shown.
The PARCC tests were developed to test knowledge of the Common Core standards that were introduced in Maryland several years ago as a way to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college or a career that pays a living wage.
Botel said Poly performed better than might have been expected compared to some suburban high schools. But so did little New Song Academy in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore, particularly in language arts in middle school, he said. Sixty-four percent of its eighth-graders passed, beating the state average of 40 percent. A number of top-ranked high schools have entrance requirements. However, they also have a larger share of low-income students than many schools. Half of Poly students qualify for a reduced or free lunch, as do 37 percent at Western and 23 percent at Eastern.
When asked what helped their students succeed, the principals of Chesapeake Science Point, Eastern and Poly said their schools are committed to keeping high academic standards and to providing extra help to struggling students. At Eastern, principal Michelle Anderson cited a focus on reading and writing in every class, which helps improve English skills.
"It becomes a culture in our school that we are geared toward academic achievement," Anderson said, adding that half an hour is built into the daily schedule for students to go to teachers for extra help. Educators at Poly point to after-school coach classes, while Chesapeake provides extra help on Saturdays and tries to give extra attention both to the highest achievers and those who are doing poorly.
But the principals also believe that building a strong sense of community within the school is important. "We have kids coming from diverse communities. Once they get here it is like a melting pot," said Jacqueline Williams, principal of Poly. "We are the second family."
Students at Poly say they appreciate the school's high standards.
"I think we are all interested in going to college and we all motivate each other," said student Cesia Calero.
Sanja Shand, 17, said he was focused on all the wrong things when he first came to Poly in ninth grade but did a 180-degree turn as his teachers demanded more and showed they had faith in him.
"The teachers see something in me," he said.
Few schools are getting large numbers of their students to score a 4 or 5 on the PARCC, which is considered passing. Students are tested in grades three through eight in reading and math. High school scores are based on a 10th-grade English test and algebra, which is taken by students in various grades.
The top elementary schools on the list are largely in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Shipley's Choice, at No. 1, had an overall passing rate of 88 percent. In Baltimore County, Carroll Manor, Riderwood, Sparks, Pinewood, West Towson and Rodgers Forge elementary schools all place in the top 15 in the region.
Clarksville and Centennial Lane are top performers in Howard County. Carroll, Harford and Baltimore City schools do not have an elementary in the top 20. The highest-performing Carroll County elementary school is Hampstead, at number 22. In Harford County it's Forest Hill, number 23.
In the city, the highest-performing elementary is Roland Park. It is ranked 55 among elementaries in the region, with a combined passing rate of 64 percent.
At nearly half of the city's 124 elementary schools, less than 10 percent of students passed the tests.
Test scores are often closely correlated with a family's income and educational background, and The Sun's analysis found that schools with wealthier students generally did better on the rankings than those with large proportions of disadvantaged students. About 80 percent of city students qualify for the subsidized lunch program.
Greg Bricca, head of accountability in Carroll County, said the PARCC results are similar to the results of other state tests given annually during past decades. Carroll schools generally do well in math compared to other jurisdictions, and there are no schools where students are performing below the average of schools in the region.
"Our students come to school in larger percentages ready to learn than in some other counties," Bricca said.
Among middle schools, the highest performing were in Howard County, which had eight of the top 15 in The Sun's ranking.
Renee A. Foose, superintendent of Howard County Public Schools, said she believes the achievement is due in part to the curriculum written by the county's teachers. She also pointed to student assessments the county gives three or four times a year to provide teachers with "actionable information" on what they should be teaching to improve student achievement.
Baltimore County's middle schools did not rank as high as its elementary and high schools. Russell Brown, the county's testing chief, said he believes this could be partly because the rankings do not take into account high-performing middle school students who took the geometry exam usually given in high school.
Brown also believes the PARCC test is flawed because students who take the exams on paper do better than those who take it on computers. All of Baltimore City, Carroll County and Howard County students take the test on computers. In Anne Arundel, all grades but third took the test online. All Baltimore County elementary students took it online last year, but not all middle school students.