It doesn't sound very exciting: that a sample of Maryland eighth graders scored an average of 260 on a national math exam on which the national average score was 261. But there is some significance hidden in those numbers.
The results come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has been measuring the achievement of American students in a variety of subjects for more than 20 years. This is the first time, however, that NAEP has published not just national and regional totals but state-by-state results. States could choose whether to participate; 37 chose to do so.
The unfamiliar scoring -- the tests were scored on a scale of 0 to 500 -- makes the bad news less obvious. A score of 200 shows command of "material typically covered by the third grade;" 250, material covered by fifth grade; 300, "content introduced by the seventh grade." So the average Maryland eighth grader -- and the average U.S. eighth grader -- is performing at about fifth grade level in mathematics.
In releasing the results, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander warned that "none of the states are cutting it." And one might expect that Maryland would be closer to cutting it than most other states. In the Northeast, the average score was 270, highest of any region and 10 points above the Maryland average. Maryland is a rich state; only seven states spend more per pupil on elementary-secondary education.
Breakdowns of the results give some hints as to where the greatest problems lie. In Maryland and across the country, students from "advantaged" backgrounds score much better than those from "disadvantaged backgrounds." Although even the best students are not doing nearly as well as they should be, in Maryland the gap between best and worst is greater than it is in other states.
Maryland's school superintendent, Joseph L. Shilling, saw the results as a signal to "move ahead at full speed" with reform efforts here. A keystone of those efforts is new tests similar in purpose to the national ones, which will show which school districts and which schools are getting the job done and which need more help.
dTC The math results also are further evidence that if the state hopes to have the educated citizens and trained work force that it needs, it must address in particular the problems of the lowest-performing students. All Maryland students -- suburban, urban or rural -- deserve the chance to achieve.