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Maryland state test results show improvements in English and math, struggles in science

Katerina Maylock, with Capitals Educators, points on a student's worksheet as she teaches a test preparation class at Holton Arms School, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016 in Bethesda. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon
Katerina Maylock, with Capitals Educators, points on a student's worksheet as she teaches a test preparation class at Holton Arms School, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016 in Bethesda.

More Maryland students passed this year’s standardized English and literacy test than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data released Tuesday by the state department of education.

Nearly 48% of Maryland students are proficient in the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAP) for English and literacy. Third-grade proficiency rates for the English Language Arts and Literacy (ELA) test reached a nine-year high this spring.

State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said these improvements show investments and practices in literacy are working.

“But it's nothing to say mission accomplished on because we have work to do,” Choudhury said. “And it needs to be true in every school.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting, board member Joshua Michael pointed out that fifth graders were the only students statewide who did not improve their ELA scores — because three critical years of their elementary education were impacted by the pandemic.

“These are the children who, when COVID hit, were in second grade,” he said. “If we were unsure how important early literacy is, this is evidence for us. This is the one group that is struggling.”

State successes in literacy did not translate to math and science scores. Less than a quarter of Maryland students achieved proficiency status for math, which is an improvement from last year. But no grade level matched pre-pandemic performance.

Fifth graders improved their science scores in all but one district in Maryland. But eighth grade scores decreased in 22 of the 24 districts.

State board member Rachel McKusker said the science score difference is because the eighth grade test is cumulative, assessing material from grades six through eight, while the fifth grade test only includes material from that year.

“Middle school kids can't necessarily tell you what they had for breakfast, and we're asking them to remember our science standards from sixth grade,” she said.

As test score data is broken down by school district and demographics, improvements become slimmer. Baltimore City students tested at the lowest level in the state across all subjects. Only 26% passed the English assessment. And less than 10% achieved proficiency in math — with only 6% of Algebra 1 test-takers hitting the mark. In Baltimore County, only 7% of students who took the Algebra 1 assessment passed.

On the science test, less than 12% of fifth graders scored as proficient — and less than 9% of eighth graders did the same.

Across all grade levels, districts and subjects, students with disabilities and English learners scored significantly lower than their peers — with gaps persisting at the same levels as previous years.

In most cases, these student groups did see improvement in their scores from last year by a few percentage points. Director of Research Matthew Duque called this increase “a relatively big deal over year-to-year.”

But board member Joan Mele-McCarthy disagreed.

“I'm not celebrating increases in numbers because those groups are still very, very low and being left behind,” she said.

Choudhury agreed with Mele-McCarthy, saying school districts are “only as strong as your most struggling student.” But he pushed back on the idea that no progress has been made.

“All boats are rising. That's an amazing part here,” he said. “But we need the boats that have historical inequities and other challenges to rise faster.”

Choudhury said that many students — including those with disabilities and those who do not speak English as their first language — are on the “cusp of proficiency,” according to this year’s test results. That means students were only two or three right answers away from passing.

According to data presented by state department officials, 11-17% of Maryland students qualified in this group on math tests, and 16-22% qualified in English.

Choudhury said identifying these “cusp of proficiency” students makes a difference.

“When you tell a parent your child was off by two or three questions, that's a different feeling taking in what your kid needs, versus telling them they didn't get it,” he said. “These are a lot of kids who can read, who can succeed, who can do great things.”

Bri Hatch (they/them) is a Report for America Corps Member joining the WYPR team to cover education.
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