The scores of Maryland elementary and middle school students inched up this year on the annual math and English assessments, with an unusually strong increase in Baltimore City.
The increase in the pass rate among city students outpaced nearly all other school systems in the region, and was nearly twice the state average in reading on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests. Under schools CEO Sonja Santelises, the city has focused intensely on academic improvement.
It’s the first time since at least 2010 that standardized test scores among city students have risen significantly in both subjects.
“The whole system is not where we want it to be, but it is hopeful and we are moving in the right direction,” Santelises said. “The pockets of promise are really expanding.”
Schools that saw large increases in math or English — of 5 or more percentage points — are dotted across the city, from far east Baltimore to the northwest corner.
“Some of our gems are in sections of the city where people might not expect it,” Santelises said.
Still, the percentage of city students who passed the state test remained remarkably low. Less than one in five earned a passing score, and Santelises cautioned that she is not “holding a parade” for the results.
Statewide, student pass rates increased by about 1 percentage point in English and math in elementary and middle schools on the PARCC, a rigorous test instituted for the first time in 2015. Before then, the state used other standardized tests.
Despite the increase in pass rates, more than half the state’s students did not pass either the math or English tests. Only 31.4 percent of students statewide passed the math test in grades three through eight, and only 41.6 percent passed in English.
"I know our schools and our teachers and our administrators are making some important efforts to improve performance across the state. But I recognize we still have work to do,” said Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon at a board meeting Tuesday as the scores were released to the public.
State school board member David Steiner called the results mixed, saying that while there were gains, more than 40 percent of 10th-graders are not on track for college or a career, although 85 percent will graduate.
“A 1 percent per-year gain in proficiency is not a rate of progress that any of us can celebrate,” he said.
Steiner did call the city results encouraging.
Statewide scores on the two high school PARCC tests, meanwhile, dropped dramatically, which state officials attributed to a large number of students taking the test twice and failing both times.
“As you might expect, the students who are repeating the test are doing so because they did not score” well, said Dara Shaw, the state education department’s director of research. “These students are now repeating the test and they are the lower achieving students."
Passage of the high school PARCC tests are required for graduation and students can take them multiple times in an attempt to pass.
Scores for 10th-grade English fell 6.9 percentage points and Algebra scores dropped by 5.3 percentage points.
Across the state, the scores of African-American, Hispanic, special education and low-income children increased more than their peers in many grades and subjects, an encouraging sign for student groups with historically low pass rates. For instance, African-American pass rates were up 1.6 percentage points in English in grades three through eight over last year, compared to a 1.3 percentage point gain for white students and a 0.6 percentage-point increase for Asian students.
Among school systems in the Baltimore area, scores among third- through eighth-graders varied:
• In Baltimore City, 17.5 percent of students passed English, a 2.5 percentage-point increase, while 14.2 percent passed in math, up 1.7 points.
• In Baltimore County, 35.46 percent of students passed English, a decline of 1 percentage point, while 30.5 percent passed in math, holding largely steady.
• In Carroll County, 57.5 percent of students passed English, a 5.6 percentage-point increase, while 55 percent passed in math, a decline of less than 1 percentage point. Carroll outperformed the rest of the region overall, and was among the top performing districts in the state.
• In Harford County, 45.5 percent of students passed English, decreasing 5 percentage points, while math scores continued to hover around 40 percent.
• In Anne Arundel County, 47 percent of students passed English, down 1 percentage point, while 38 percent passed in math, up about 1 point.
• In Howard County, scores held steady with 56 percent of students passing English and about 49 percent passing math.
Baltimore schools officials said some of the best news was that more than 40 schools saw either their English or math scores go up more than 5 percentage points over the previous year, including some in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods.
Salmon, the state school’s superintendent, called any year-over-year improvement above 5 percentage points “really amazing” by research standards.
Among the city schools posting the largest gains was William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School, which the city school board nearly voted last winter to close. The number of Pinderhughes students passing the PARCC last year had been in the single digits. But the community in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where the school is located, rallied and convinced the school board to keep it open. This year, the number of Pinderhughes students passing the English PARCC assessment increased by 6.2 percentage points to 12 percent.
Callaway Elementary, a school in Northwest Baltimore where roughly 70 percent of students come from low-income families, posted the biggest gains in the district in English, with scores jumping 20.5 percentage points. Its math scores improved by 10.3 percentage points.
South Baltimore’s Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, where nearly 30 percent of students are designated as English language learners, saw its scores in English increase by nearly 20 percentage points.
Seventh-grade English teacher Margaret Allshouse said Lakeland zeroed-in on improving students' writing skills last year. Before students attempted writing prompts, Allshouse would show her class how she would approach the assignment and explain her thought process. She would then ask her class to talk through their own ideas.
"They had that opportunity to see a wide range of strategies," she said.
Baltimore County has not seen significant, sustained increases in its scores since the PARCC was first introduced in 2015. For instance, in 2016, 35.1 percent of student passed the math test in elementary schools, compared to 35.5 percent this year.
“I recognize we definitely have work to do,” said Mary Boswell-McComas, the county’s interim chief academic officer.
The county is focusing its attention on teaching reading and writing so that students can pick up a complicated social studies text and understand it as well as fiction.
“We fully expect to see improvement over the next few years,” said Mychael Dickerson, the county school system’s chief of staff.
Statewide, a significant drop in high school English and Algebra I scores concerned state education officials, though they noted part of the reason was because of the large number of students retaking the tests. The state administered 17,000 more English 10 exams and 19,000 more Algebra I tests than the year before.
More than three-quarters of students who retook the English 10 test scored a 1 or 2, which are the lowest scores possible. PARCC scores range from a 1 to 5, with a 4 or 5 considered passing.
If students score a 1 or 2 the first time, Shaw said, "most of them score a 1 or 2 again.”
The PARCC test will be given next spring for the last time before the state switches to a new, shorter test that will be written over the next year, Salmon said Tuesday at the school board meeting.
Baltimore Sun data journalist Caroline Pate contributed to this report.