Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Fox45 ignores context on Baltimore’s post-pandemic test scores | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises appears at a recent news conference with Mayor Brandon Scott.

It never fails: The video of a CEO walking away from a TV news camera — and the videographer and reporter giving chase into a parking lot — always excites the visual cortex. And signals from the visual cortex instantly reach the part of the brain that differentiates good from evil, and it usually sees evil.

Why else would a CEO scurry away from a stalking reporter? She must have something to hide. She must be guilty of malfeasance or something.


Or maybe — here’s where the critical thinking part of the brain kicks in — Sonja Santelises, the CEO of the Baltimore public schools, knows she can’t win.

Perhaps she’s concluded that, no matter what she tells a WBFF Fox45 reporter, like the one who chased her down a couple of days ago, the final report will go something like this: Baltimore schools fail our children, and the CEO doesn’t care. And the mayor doesn’t care. No city official cares, and that’s why the city is a hellhole.


I don’t think public officials who believe in what they’re doing should scurry away from reporters trying to get a comment for a story.

But, when you’ve been repeatedly beaten like a biscuit — when it’s clear that a certain TV station has a hard-right agenda to make Baltimore, its Democratic leadership, its government and its schools look as bad as possible as often as possible — maybe you get sick of the routine. Maybe you do not care to participate.

The reporter chased Santelises to get a comment on the station’s latest obsession — that 23 city schools had not one student who scored proficient in mathematics on the standardized test, known as the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAP), given across the state last spring.

In its reporting — and there have been several stories about it since January — WBFF calls the test results “shocking” and a “devastating reality” for city schools.

While the failure rate in math is newsworthy, it is not the only “reality” that emerged from the MCAP testing, and Baltimore was not the only school district with disturbing test results. So, in the interest of broadening the view on this subject, let me provide a little context.

First of all, there was this thing called the pandemic, starting in the winter of 2020. School closures and distance learning greatly affected student achievement nationwide, and the negative impact continued into last year.

Fact: The National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered to a broad sampling of fourth and eighth graders in early 2022, showed widespread setbacks in most states, and Maryland, where our public schools frequently rank among the top in the nation, had some of the steepest declines.

Maryland fourth graders scored 10 points lower in mathematics and 7 points lower in reading than their counterparts did in the year before the pandemic. Eighth graders’ average scores fell 11 points in math and 5 points in reading compared with 2019.


So, clearly, the pandemic took a toll on student progress throughout the nation and the state.

Last spring, the MCAPs were administered in Maryland for the first time. They showed, on the upside, that Baltimore 10th graders actually improved in English proficiency during the pandemic and, overall, Maryland students showed resilience in English during a tough time for education.

But math is where the biggest declines took place.

While Baltimore students had the lowest proficiency in math — just 7% of third through eighth graders, and 5% of 10th graders tested in Algebra I — most county school systems had little to brag about.

In Baltimore County, about 19% of third through eighth graders scored proficient in math, and just 7% of students tested in Algebra 1 scored proficient.

In Anne Arundel County, 23% of third through eighth graders were proficient in math, and only 17% of high school students who tested for Algebra 1 scored proficient. That’s better than the results from Baltimore, but students in those two counties historically have performed better than their city peers.


Let’s look at Harford County: The MCAP results there show 26% of students in grades three through eight were proficient in math. At the high school level, only 14% of students who tested in Algebra 1 scored proficient.

Students in Howard and Carroll counties performed better overall, with Howard having some of the best results in the state.

One more thing: It’s not like Santelises has been running away from this mess. In fact, she’s been saying for months that she and city administrators knew math scores were going to be rough. So North Avenue started rolling out interventions last year, and it’s expected that the city school board will see a new math instruction strategy in the spring. “We did not wait for the release of MCAP to start planning for acceleration in mathematics,” Santelises said in January.

So there’s some context.

Clearly, Baltimore isn’t the only district that needs to make big improvements, but that’s one of the easiest things for me — or anyone else on the outside looking in — to say. Teaching is tough; teaching kids from disadvantaged backgrounds even tougher. And we’ve heard all that before, but the worst public health crisis in a century obviously delivered a huge setback to efforts everywhere to get our kids ready for life after high school.

I’m not making excuses. I’m giving a little context to what’s happened in the public schools, beyond one distressing data point from one post-pandemic test.