Carroll County schools scored solidly above average on every category of the new Maryland School Assessment tests, falling short of state-mandated goals only in reading performance by special-education students.
The Carroll system was one of only four in the state to surpass 19 of the 20 markers used to monitor school progress. More than 70 percent of Carroll students are proficient or better readers at each grade level tested. Math scores were generally lower, but the worst scoring group, the county's eighth-graders at 52.3 percent proficiency, still beat the state average handily.
"I was anticipating that we would come in near the top," said Barry Gelsinger, the county's assistant superintendent in charge of instruction. "We've been working very diligently toward realigning our curriculum with state standards and goals."
The tests - given in third, fifth, eighth and 10th grades - mark the first step in the state's campaign to move all students to proficient levels in math and reading by 2014, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law requires not only the total student population, but also subgroups such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and special education students to meet annual markers.
The Maryland School Assessment replaces the 10-year-old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), which was dropped last year because it was designed to measure the performance of schools, not individual students.
Carroll school officials praised the mound of data on individual students produced by the tests.
"In this era of accountability, this is going to help us get down to individual students and get them the help they need," said Gregory Bricca, director of research and accountability for the school system.
Parents are scheduled to receive individual test reports on their children by late September.
Schools that fail to meet all of the state-mandated markers two years in a row will go into a remediation process that ultimately can lead to state takeover. No Carroll school is on the state's list of 131 failing schools.
But Gelsinger said he and other administrators already have begun working on a plan to improve reading instruction for special-education students, who make up about 12 percent of the county's school population. Carroll special-education students scored better than the state average on reading tests, but, for example, only 30 percent of eighth-graders and 32.6 percent of 10th-graders were proficient, according to state standards.
Gelsinger said he will ask individual schools to consider alternate methods for teaching struggling special-education students. On a broader level, he said, administrators will look for trends that might link specific teaching methods with high or low performance on the tests. He said the system will also consider allocating more money to reading instruction for special-education students.
Such targeted efforts are the point of the new testing system, which gives school systems far more data on individual schools and students than the state's old tests, Gelsinger said.
"The whole system's performance can't be it anymore," he said. "We really have to zero in on these subgroups and make sure everybody's performance is improving."
The county performed well compared with its neighbors in the Baltimore area, scoring better than Baltimore County, similarly to Harford County and below Howard County, which had the best overall scores in the region.
Carroll students also performed above the national average on all but one of the tests, the third-grade reading test on which they scored in the 44th percentile. The national figures have no bearing on the state's effort to push all of its students to proficient levels.
Black students, 734 among the county school population of about 28,000, performed worst among the ethnic groups separated out by the test. For example, 38.3 percent of black students met the state proficiency standard on the third-grade reading test compared with 70.7 percent of white students. On the eighth-grade math test, 21.6 percent of black students met the proficiency standard compared with 52.8 percent of white students.
Such numbers could be skewed by the small sample sizes of black students, but Carroll school administrators said they still need to find ways to improve performance among groups identified by the test as struggling.
"It should be easier for us to address, given the small numbers we're working with," said Steven Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction. "We have no excuse not to identify the issues that are keeping these students performing where they are."
The test scores for most schools in the county were clustered tightly around the county averages but a few stood out. For example, Northwest Middle School in Taneytown scored well below the county average on the eighth-grade reading and math tests. Only 34.7 percent of Northwest students scored proficient or better on the math test.