Md. students make gains on national test

Colleges and UniversitiesHuman InterestBowieCecil CountyAndres AlonsoNancy Grasmick

Maryland's public school students made greater gains on a national standardized test than their peers in nearly every other state, although the achievement gap between white and minority students persists.

Bucking the trend on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Maryland students scored significantly above the national average on reading in fourth and eighth grades. In addition, Maryland has made long-term gains in reading that are not common in other states despite a federal emphasis on accountability for every child.

"We are very pleased about the reading scores," said Mary Gable, assistant state superintendent for academic policy. But she added, "I see some things that we are concerned about, and that is improving the achievement gap."

Results on the Nation's Report Card, the only assessment given in reading and math that allows achievement to be compared across states, were released Tuesday. The test is given to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders every two years.

"There was a huge investment in education and it paid off," said Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso. Not only are there 5- and 6-point gains on the 2011 tests that outpace the country, he said, but the long-term trend is "quite remarkable."

Alonso also hopes that some of the improvement is based on achievement in city schools.

"Clearly lots of people around the state should take pride that over time — on a very rigorous external standard — there is growth," he said.

Maryland scores were in the top five states in fourth-grade reading and math and in the top eight in eighth-grade reading. The state's eighth-graders were in the middle of states on the math test.

Massachusetts had the highest scores on all four tests and the District of Columbia had the worst scores, although it is one of the jurisdictions that have made the most gains over time.

David Driscoll, chairman of the board that oversees NAEP, said he believes the success of states like Maryland and Massachusetts are the result of strong leadership and a commitment to reform.

"Maryland was a state that really took reform seriously," he said. He added that the state has had some strong superintendents, including Alonso and former state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, as well as a commitment to standards, training teachers and early childhood education.

Overall, educators still view the scores as disappointing. In the nation, only about a third of students in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math are considered proficient or advanced. Fourth-grade math is slightly higher at 39 percent. In comparison, 40 percent to 48 percent of Maryland students in the two subjects are considered proficient or advanced.

The state's minority students continue to improve their scores, but they are not catching up to white students at the same rate seen across the nation. Black students in the state have narrowed the gap in only one subject in the past 20 years. In fourth-grade math, black students scored 28 points lower than white students this year, compared to 34 points lower in 1992.

Just over 20 percent of eighth-grade black students in the state were considered proficient or advanced in 2011. Alonso said the improvement among white students somewhat masks the great gains made by minorities.

Reading scores have largely stagnated across the nation in fourth and eighth grade over the 20 years that the test has been given while math scores have risen to their highest point. But, Maryland's rate of progress began to accelerate in 2005 and is now significantly above the national average.

Achievement in math was significantly below reading, which supports the view among experts that the state's math curriculum needs greater improvements than reading to bring it up to the rigorous common core standards adopted by more than 40 states in the past year. Gable said she believes that move will make the state more competitive with students in other states. "We know the rigor has been raised, which is what we are very interested in," she said.

Colleges have complained that too many graduates need remedial classes, particularly in math, before they can take credit-bearing classes. And most Maryland students take what some educators believe is a watered-down version of Algebra I in eighth grade, while some states have more high-level Algebra I classes. The NAEP results showed that students taking Algebra I in eighth grade had higher scores on the test.

In contrast, said Carolyn Teigland, associate superintendent for education services in Cecil County, "The standards for language arts are fairly rigorous" now. The state has put money and attention on early childhood education and has produced technical support for teachers whose students are falling behind in reading.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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