Md. high school test scores barely improve

English competency exam defeats 60% of students

January 03, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Maryland students scored poorly on the new high school competency examinations again last year, and officials said they expect no improvement until passing the tests is required for graduation.

About half of 65,000 students failed the 2003 algebra and biology tests, about the same rate as 2002. Four in 10 failed government, and six in 10 failed English, including a large majority of poor and minority students and those with disabilities.

The results were posted without notice on the state Education Department's Web site Christmas week, just as students and teachers were headed home for the holidays. But Gary Heath, the state testing chief, said there was no effort to hide the dismal results.

"We're putting all kinds of data on the site as it becomes available," Heath said. "This just happened to be the time for the [High School Assessments]."

Heath said he wasn't surprised that scores were flat between 2002 and 2003, the first two years the tests were mandatory - but still not tied to graduation. "The history of other states is that, absent consequences [for failing], it's too early for us to expect improvements," he said.

The state Board of Education gave preliminary approval last month to making the new tests officially count with the class of 2009, this year's seventh-graders. But that could change as state officials prepare the regulations governing what are known as "exit tests."

The English exam, on reading, writing and grammar, was the most troublesome in the 2003 testing. "From our preliminary look at the numbers, English is the hardest test for students with limited English proficiency, special-ed children and poor children," said Heath.

Statewide, 40 percent of students achieved the minimum scores that the Education Department has established as "passing" on the English test, but 14 percent of African-American males did so. In Baltimore City, where the overall English passing rate was 18 percent - a 7 percentage point decline from 2002 - only three of 571 students in special education succeeded on the test.

And 17 percent of students whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced-price lunches passed the English test, down from 22 percent in 2002.

The state board voted last month to require special education students to take the new tests but excused them from having to pass in order to earn a diploma.

Area educators reacted cautiously yesterday to the latest wave of test data, many saying they hadn't seen the results of the exams, taken last January and May.

In Anne Arundel County, minority students lost more ground than white students, a problem in a county where school officials have vowed to substantially reduce performance disparities by 2007.

At the county's Southern High School, which is 15 percent African-American, fewer than 18 percent of black students passed the algebra assessment - a drop of nearly 40 percentage points from 2002.

Arundel administrators said they are analyzing the data for areas of weakness and will work with principals on problems at individual schools. But they warned about reading too much into two years' worth of scores, saying that is not enough to establish trends.

"But it does point to areas that we have to focus on," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who was concerned about the increased failure rate among minorities. "We don't have time to waste," said Smith, who added he is confident that the racial achievement gap will close in coming years, now that several academic initiatives are in place.

Anita Morris, a senior data analyst in Anne Arundel, said that once students understand the importance of the assessments, "I think you're going to see great growth."

In Howard County, the percentage of students who passed the English test declined to 62 percent last year from 66 percent in 2002. But students' scores improved in biology, government and algebra.

"We're real pleased with the progress in algebra, government and biology," said county schools spokeswoman Patti P. Caplan. "We'll certainly be taking a look at the English and would like to see the same progress being made in that area. But in order to understand better what happened in each one of those areas, it's going to take a little more time to analyze the data."

Carroll County demonstrated the same pattern. Scores rose in algebra, biology and government, while the English passing rate declined by 4 percentage points.

At South Carroll High, English scores declined by about 8 percentage points, while algebra scores increased by 13 percentage points.

Barry Gelsinger, assistant superintendent of instruction, declined to comment on the South Carroll results, but he said the statewide decline in the English pass rate was cause for concern.

Spokesmen for Baltimore City and Baltimore County declined to comment until they had analyzed the results.

Staff writers Mary Gail Hare, Laura Loh, Sara Neufeld and Gus A. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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