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Stuck in place

The results of this year's Maryland School Assessments test, which show Baltimore City schools making only marginal progress on standardized test scores over last year, are troubling because they seem to suggest that the ambitious reforms begun five years ago by schools CEO Andrés Alonso may be running out of steam. The percentage of city students scoring proficient or better in reading and math is almost unchanged over last year, when the district saw its first decline since 2007. School officials need to seriously ask themselves whether the changes Mr. Alonso has implemented are enough to keep moving the system forward, or whether they already have produced all the results they're likely to achieve and the system needs to look at other approaches to realize further progress.

In fairness, the city isn't the only jurisdiction for which this year's test scores come as something of a disappointment. Though Maryland's public schools are considered among the nation's best overall, recent improvements in student test scores across the state have been marginal at best. While overall nearly 90 percent of elementary students passed their reading and math tests, middle school pass rates lagged significantly behind, with only 69 percent of middle schoolers passing math and 79.8 percent passing reading.

Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties each registered modest gains, but on the whole middle school math scores in all three were particularly disappointing given that under the No Child Left Behind Act passed under the Bush administration, 100 percent of students were supposed to have scored proficient or better by 2014. Had Maryland, along with 26 other states, not received a waiver of that requirement from the Obama administration this year, between a quarter and a third of the state's students would have failed to meet that target and hundreds of schools would have been in danger of being labeled as failing. State schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery was right to say there's nothing in this week's test results to suggest Maryland can afford to rest on its laurels.

The situation in Baltimore City, however, is particularly troubling because its students started out already behind their counterparts in other jurisdictions and because their efforts to catch up now appear to be in danger of stalling. Mr. Alonso's strategy for reform was always based on the idea that the changes he began instituting in 2007 would produce rapid and sustainable improvements that educators could build on year after year. It wasn't just a matter of improving the quality of classroom instruction and creating learning environments in which students could thrive but of doing it fast enough to make city schools competitive with the best systems in the state.

Until last year, when city test scores experienced their first decline on Mr. Alonso's watch, that model appeared to be working. Test scores improved rapidly between 2007 and 2010 as the schools chief cut headquarters staff in order to devote resources to individual schools, gave principals more power to manage their budgets and staff, closed failing public schools and replaced them with innovative charter and transformation schools and negotiated a landmark contract with city teachers that tied compensation and promotion to growth in student achievement.

The disappointment of the 2011 test results was at first interpreted as a temporary setback, due perhaps to heightened security measures the system put in place to prevent cheating, which was thought to have artificially inflated scores at some schools. Mr. Alonso insisted, however, that the bulk of the previous gains were real and that the schools could expect to continue making rapid progress.

But while a few individual schools have continued to see notable improvements this year, the systemwide gains that characterized Mr. Alonso's first three years appear to have come to a standstill. This year's 2 percentage point uptick in math proficiency, to 63 percent, was almost exactly offset by a drop in reading, which was down to 67 percent.

The schools can't afford to waste time treading water. Mr. Alonso's pledge to respond to the city's stagnant test scores with more urgency is not sufficient; after all, a lack of urgency has never been his problem. But a second year of no improvement in elementary and middle school reading and math does suggest he needs to come up with some new strategies to boost classroom learning beyond what he's already managed to accomplish. If he doesn't, he risks losing the support that has so far allowed him a free hand to reshape the system.

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