While Maryland is the nation's fifth wealthiest state and ranks ninth in per pupil expenditures, student performance on the national Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills was only average.
Of the scores available yesterday, Baltimore students performed worse than those in any other jurisdiction in the area, while scores were highest in Howard County.
The multiple-choice CTBS was given for the first time last April either to all or to a sampling of third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students in the city and each county of the state to gauge skills in reading, language and math. It replaced an outdated version of the California Achievement Test that had been developed in 1977.
State education officials said that for years, performance on the CAT steadily improved because the norms were outdated and because, over time, teachers had become so familiar with the test that they could tailor their lessons to make sure students performed well.
Over the last several years, even Baltimore, with the state's lowest scores, matched or exceeded the national norms on the CAT, and other school systems had scores well above the 1977 norms.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the State Board of Education, said that the mediocre scores on the new tests "confirm what we have known all along.
"That's why we have started this Maryland School Performance Program," he said. "A lot of people were screaming about it. People don't think it's fair to hold schools accountable. And they think the only problem is money."
The statewide CTBS results, released yesterday, show that average third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students scored just above or below the 50th percentile in reading, language and math. That means their scores were only higher than half of the 150,000 students in a national sample who took the test when it was being developed in 1989.
Because the CTBS measures students by these predetermined national norms, state education officials said the test is not useful for instructional improvements. Instead, the state's own tests measure students against specific standards set for Maryland.
However, the tests allow Maryland to compare its students to others across the country (the CTBS is being given in five other states). Because school officials see the test being most valuable as a general comparison, many Maryland school districts give the CTBS only to a scientific sample of 250 students in each grade, so scores are not available for all students or all schools.
"Students in Maryland are not going to stay in Maryland all the time," said Robert Gabrys, assistant state superintendent. "They are competing in a global economy, and we have an obligation to ask how well would they compete."
The scores showed that black students in Maryland would not compete very well. They scored woefully lower than any other ethnic group in the state, while Asians generally performed best. Mr. Gabrys put down the notion that the CTBS was racially biased because blacks' performance on most tests typically lags behind other races.
"Everything you are seeing keeps reinforcing that," he said. "So we should not be explaining why the measure is wrong, but we should be talking about ways to improve the education of black students. What is it we are going to do to make a difference?"
The state's largest population of black students -- more than 88,000 -- is in Baltimore, which also spends only $4,600 per pupil, compared to the state average of $5,460.
"All across the board, we as blacks are not in touch with the significance of standardized tests," said Walter G. Amprey, superintendent of Baltimore City Schools. "But they are not necessarily a good measure of intelligence or talent. There are cultural and ethnic differences that need to be more keenly investigated."
Dr. Amprey also was disappointed with city school students' dismal performance on the CTBS -- the lowest in the metropolitan area. For example, third graders scored at the 35th percentile in reading, 38th in language and 30th in math.
City fifth-graders scored at the 27th percentile in reading, 36th in language and 40th in math. And eighth-graders scored 37th in reading, 40th in language and 31st in math.
Baltimore County students scored above the state averages in all categories. "We are extremely proud of our students' performance on this test," said Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel. "Student performances obviously continue to improve."
The average third-grader in Baltimore County scored higher than 61st percent of the national sample in reading, 55th in language and 63rd in math. Average fifth-graders ranked in the 54th percentile in reading, 62nd in language and 65th in math. And the eighth-graders in Baltimore County ranked in the 58th
percentile in reading, 53rd in language and 57th in math.