Original URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A32119-2003Aug22.html

Washington Post 
August 23, 2003

by Ylan Q. Mui

Children living in poverty, those with limited English skills and
special education students failed as groups to meet state standards on a new reading and math exam that will be used to hold Maryland's public schools accountable for the next decade.

Yesterday's results of the Maryland School Assessment -- given for the first time last spring to students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10 -- were
eagerly awaited by educators because they indicate how close the state's 24 school districts are to meeting requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The law mandates that all children be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014 and judges schools in large part on student performance in subgroups that include racial and ethnic minorities, high-poverty children, those in special education and students who speak limited English.

Schools that fail to meet state targets two years in a row for any
subgroup will face consequences, ultimately resulting in state takeover if improvements are not made. Other penalties include allowing students to transfer to schools with higher test scores.

None of the Maryland school districts in the Washington region saw every one of its subgroups meet all state proficiency goals. Prince George's County fared the worst in the area, as its Hispanic, high-poverty, limited-English and special education students failed to meet the benchmarks in reading and math. St. Mary's County hit the most targets, missing in only one area: disabled students' performance on the reading test.

Maryland's target for the number of students scoring proficient in
reading was 43.4 percent this year; the target in math was 33.9 percent.

Overall in Prince George's, 44 percent of the county's students
demonstrated proficiency in reading and 36.4 percent in math. African Americans, who make up the majority of students, barely missed the reading target and just made it in math. "We will take any and all actions necessary to ensure that our students are making progress toward meeting the federal goals for achievement," Prince George's schools chief André J. Hornsby, who took over the 136,000-student district in
June, said yesterday in a statement.

Of Montgomery County's 184 public schools, 140 met or exceeded the standard in every category, while 32 missed that distinction by just one area. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said those numbers validated the district's intensive efforts in the primary grades in the last several years.

Yet Montgomery's scores among special education students and those with limited English proficiency were still low. Weast said the latter group is particularly troubling because his district has nearly half of the state's limited-English students and is enrolling more than 1,000 additional immigrant children every year.

He said yesterday that the federal law needs to be adjusted. "I don't want to reduce the rigor, nor do I want to reduce expectations," Weast said. "But you have to be realistic and you have to be fair. And it's not a fair shake if you . . . take a high-stakes test and you don't know the language."

In Anne Arundel County -- where officials said 28 of their 117 public schools missed state targets, with most of those failing in only one
area -- Superintendent Eric J. Smith saw the results as a call to
action. "It has put us all on a very rapid course for significant
improvement over the years," he said yesterday.

Statewide, special education students ranked the lowest overall, with only about a quarter scoring proficient on both tests. About 39 percent of Maryland students who receive free and reduced-price meals -- a key measure of poverty -- were ranked proficient in reading, while nearly 33 percent hit the mark in math.

Asian and non-Hispanic white students across the state scored the highest on average, with more than 75 percent of those students
proficient in reading. Nearly 80 percent of Asian students and 67
percent of non-Hispanic white students were proficient in math.

Maryland's Hispanic and African American students met the standard in reading, but barely. In math, African Americans also just made the target, while Hispanic students exceeded the benchmark by several percentage points.

Among all students, 61.4 percent ranked proficient in reading and 53.3 percent were proficient in math.

The new tests and standards are part of Maryland's efforts to comply with No Child Left Behind, a law that has been in place for more than a year. Last fall, the state signed a $53 million contract to develop a standardized exam to replace the decade-old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP.

(The District and Virginia follow similar rules for their standardized
tests; the results of Virginia's Standards of Learning exams are
scheduled to be released next week. Scores on the District's Stanford 9 test were released in June and showed improvements by third- and fourth-graders in reading and math; the overall scores remained low.)

Maryland's controversial MSPAP focused on writing and allowed students to work in groups, but it did not give individual student scores, as now required by federal law. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said the new requirements are "going to challenge all of us in education, but I support accountability. There's no doubt we have our work cut out for us." State officials said they did not have a tally of how many schools across Maryland failed to meet this year's goals, and some local educators complained that the state data are not reliable.

"We're having a horrible time interpreting this stuff," said Leslie
Wilson, director of student assessment and program evaluation in Howard County. The formula for measuring student performance is complex and includes several exemptions based on the number of students in a subgroup, the length of time a student was in a school and the numbers who took the test, among others.

Howard officials said they are questioning the results for some schools and subgroups. Likewise, a Charles County official, John Cox, said the state Web site incorrectly shows the district falling short of the goal for school attendance. And earlier this week, state officials admitted that Summit Hall Elementary in Gaithersburg hit all of the state's standards even though they had previously said it missed one target.

"The potential for error is huge," said Montgomery schools spokesman Brian Porter. "We will be scrubbing the data very closely to find out what it truly means."

A complete list of scores, broken down by county and individual school, is available on the Web site of the Maryland State Department of Education, at www.mdreportcard.org. Students will begin receiving their personal scores in mid-September, school officials said.

The D.C. public school system has been using the Stanford 9 for several years to determine which schools are improving or falling behind each year. In Virginia, students have been taking the state's SOL exams since 1998.