Baltimore's middle and high school students scored significantly worse last year on state tests measuring basic reading and math skills - a stark reminder, education officials say, of how badly reform is needed in the school system's secondary grades.
Citywide, 62 percent of students in grades six through 12 who took the Maryland Functional reading test passed it, down from 69 percent the previous school year.
The news was worse in math: Only 18 percent of students who took the test passed, down from 26 percent the year before.
The overall pass rate on the writing test remained unchanged, at 46 percent.
"I sort of cried almost when I was reading this report," school board member J. Tyson Tildon said after the board received the results Tuesday night. "This is not rocket science ... and all of these kids ought to be doing this in the fifth grade, let alone the sixth or seventh grade. We really have our work cut out for us."
Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer of the 96,000-student school system, said yesterday that she has asked for an analysis of the results to determine the cause of the drop.
The functional reading and math tests, which consist of multiple-choice questions, are designed to measure basic competency. They are considered sixth-grade-level tests.
The reading test, for example, measures students' ability to identify main ideas and follow directions, among other things, while the math portion tests students' ability to find percentages - say, 25 percent of 100 - or solve simple word problems.
Children begin taking the tests, which are administered in the fall, spring and summer, in the sixth grade. Once a child passes a test, he doesn't have to take it again.
Introducing tougher exams
Although passing is a state requirement for high school graduation, the Maryland Education Department is phasing out the tests, in part because they are considered too basic.
The state has begun using a series of new, more rigorous high school exams in various subject areas. They are expected to become a requirement for a high school diploma.
City schoolchildren take several other tests throughout the year, including the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams, which measure the progress of schools rather than individual students, as well as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which shows how students fare compared with their peers nationwide.
The latest functional test results show only the pass rate of children who took the test, not the percentage of students in each grade who must pass the test to graduate.
School board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said the results bring the school system, which has celebrated gains in reading and math at the elementary level for three straight years, "right back down to reality."
The reality is this: Middle and high school students have benefited little from a comprehensive, multimillion-dollar reform effort launched jointly by the city and state four years ago, and the school system is just beginning to make substantive changes designed to raise student achievement in the secondary grades.
School board member Samuel C. Stringfield called the results "humbling," and said the school system has to better prepare its middle school children for high school - particularly in the basics.
The percentage of students passing the functional reading test increased in grades six, 10 and 12 but decreased in grades seven through nine as well as grade 11. The steepest drop, 20 percentage points, occurred in grade seven.
In math, scores dipped in every grade but sixth. The worst declines occurred in ninth grade, where the score fell 15 percentage points; 10th grade, which had a 17-point decline; and 11th grade, where the drop was 19 percentage points.
Change in testing method
High school principals worried last year that the functional scores would go down - particularly in math - because of a change in how the test was administered.
The state no longer allowed students to take a computerized version of the test because of a breach of security in another jurisdiction, said Patterson High School Principal Laura D'Anna.
That meant students who had drilled for the math test on the computer had to take a paper-and-pencil version that was much longer and, potentially, more frustrating, she said.
Despite the change, D'Anna said, her school's functional math scores rose a few percentage points in ninth and 11th grades, according to preliminary figures compiled by the school. School systems report results from those grades each year to the state, which in turn releases them by jurisdiction in November.
Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent, said the change from a computerized test to a paper one should not have affected the results.
Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.