Although performing about average when compared with the rest of Maryland, Baltimore County students who took the state's new high-stakes assessment tests last school year didn't perform well in mathematics, while overall middle school scores dropped sharply.
In results released Friday, African-American students significantly trailed their white peers on the new Maryland School Assessment tests, sometimes scoring no better than classmates with limited English skills.
Special-education students also performed poorly.
And at least 45 of the county's 162 public schools didn't meet all of the targets set by the State Department of Education. As a result, they could eventually face an overhaul of instruction and replacement of staff.
Some high schools may be added later because their geometry results are being double-checked for errors.
Overall, the students performed better than peers in Baltimore City, about the same as counterparts in Anne Arundel County, and worse than children in Carroll, Harford and Howard county schools.
Superintendent Joe A. Hairston cautioned against reading too much into the results, emphasizing that the scores are the first from the new tests replacing the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.
"This has nothing to do with ranking schools," he said. "It has everything to do with establishing a baseline so we can begin to measure the growth from point A to point B."
Hairston said the school system would use the results to target areas needing improvement. And the scores are fairly consistent with the readings from other standardized tests, such as a drop in CTBS scores released last month.
At the time, school officials dismissed the CTBS scores, saying pupils may have performed poorly merely because the tests were being phased out.
Even before the most recent test results, the superintendent had identified mathematics instruction, middle schools and the special education program for improvement.
In this year's budget, he allocated more money to train math teachers. A task force is fleshing out his recommendations for drastic changes in middle school education. And the school board last week approved a $99,500 study of special education.
The MSA tests, which were given to third-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders in March, are designed to measure the proficiency of students. For example, a student taking the geometry test in high school demonstrates proficiency by correctly answering questions involving basic skills and concepts.
In Baltimore County public schools, the percentage of eighth-graders demonstrating proficiency or better dropped by about 10 percent from the percentage of fifth-graders who did.
In reading, 59.8 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better; in math, 39.5 percent did.
African-American students scored poorly. Black eighth-graders and high school students performed worse than classmates with limited English skills, and African-American students overall trailed whites by wide margins.
In high school, only 16.5 percent of black students scored proficient or better on the geometry test, while 42 percent of their white classmates did.
"It just seems that the gap is not closing - it's widening," said Ella White Campbell, a former educator who is a Randallstown activist. "And it's not going to close until we change some teaching strategies in the schools. We have got to retrain our teachers on the idea of connectivity - how to get African-American children to understand key concepts."
The new tests were instituted in response to a federal law raising standards for schools.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to meet all annual targets of academic achievement for all of their students.
If schools fail to meet even one target for two years in a row, they start down a path of remediation.
Nearly half of the county's middle schools - 13 - didn't meet all of the targets.
"It is a concern. Something does happen in middle schools," said Mary Pat Kahle, a Timonium parent who served on a committee that studied problems with the county's middle schools and suggested improvements to the superintendent. Most of the schools that failed to meet all of the targets were hurt by the scores of their special education students.
The percentage of special education students scoring proficient or better ranged from a high of 43.2 percent on the third-grade math test to a low of 7.1 percent on the eighth grade math exam - both scores far below the overall county results.
"It's indicative of what parents as well as educators have been saying for a long time - that we are not adequately addressing the needs and the achievement of students receiving special education services," said Kelli Nelson, who heads a parents committee advising the school board on special-education issues.