Howard County and Carroll County students scored better this year in nearly every grade and subject on Maryland's annual standardized tests — widening the gap between other Baltimore area school systems, which had mixed results.
Baltimore City students' scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career exams were not good. Overall, only about 15 percent of city students passed the tests, about half the rate in Baltimore County and far below the rate in Carroll and Howard counties. This was the second year that the tests had been administered amid a push for new, more rigorous standards and a new curriculum to match. But rather than posting solid gains, city students actually fell further behind in some key measures, notably third-grade reading.
Those scores come from tests administered before the new system CEO, Sonja Santelises, took over leadership of the district this summer, so they are no reflection on her performance. But they do establish a baseline by which to measure her effectiveness. She inherited a district that had been adrift to a great degree, and a key indicator of her ability to set it on course will be whether she can implement the strategies and policies necessary to produce consistent, across-the-board improvement on the city's PARCC scores in the years ahead. We don't expect that she can erase overnight an achievement gap that has been decades in the making, but we do expect progress.
To that end, we interviewed Ms. Santelises about her interpretation of the scores, her plans for improving them and her expectations for what results can be achieved in the years ahead. Our purpose in recounting her answers is not merely to inform parents, students, teachers, administrators and general taxpayers but to put them on the record so that she can be held accountable in the years ahead.
Ms. Santelises said her goal during the first half of this year has been to ensure consistency in the adoption of the district's new curriculum, which is tied to the Common Core standards and to the PARCC tests. It is more rigorous than the previous curriculum and requires students to learn skills in different ways or different sequences than teachers may be accustomed to. Teachers who use materials or lessons that aren't at grade-level will put their students at a real disadvantage on the tests. The second half of the year will be focused on ramping up teacher training — particularly on a peer-to-peer level — to provide better strategies for approaching the new material, both for students who can easily master it and for those who struggle. "Models of exemplary practice are not common enough or visible enough," she said.
Ms. Santelises says she hopes to see some gains in the results on the tests that will be administered this spring based on more uniform adherence to the curriculum. But she believes a goal of 5 percent to 7 percent annual growth in the scores is realistic by her third year, with some low-performing groups and schools making larger gains. Such a level of growth would indicate that the right systems are in place for sustainable improvements in instruction and learning, and it would allow for greater focus on those schools that continue to lag behind, she said.
The last time Baltimore students made significant gains came during the administration of former schools CEO Andrés Alonso, a period marked by major systems-level reforms like the closing of underperforming schools and the decentralization of authority to principals. Although Ms. Stantelises says some restructuring of schools may be necessary, it's not her focus. That makes sense, in part because much of that work has already been done, and in part because her background is in classroom instruction. She speaks the language of a teacher, and that's the kind of leader the district needs now.
Baltimore has a long way to go before it is providing all students with the same high level of education that many suburban districts are, and even the best of those are a long way from ensuring all students are ready for college or a career after high school. Even if Ms. Santelises realizes her goal of 5 percent to 7 percent annual growth in standardized test scores, Baltimore won't catch up quickly. But after years of fits and starts in their reform efforts, the city schools need consistent, sustainable improvement. If she can achieve that, her tenure will deserve to be counted a success.