Caught in the middle

June 14, 2005

MARYLAND STUDENTS generally did better this year than last on standardized state reading and math tests, a sign of good preparation for stiffer high school graduation requirements and annual assessments mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But though students in all 24 school districts were more proficient in reading and math, and black and Latino students showed impressive improvements, there are still achievement gaps to be addressed, particularly in middle schools.

The Maryland School Assessments measure proficiency in reading and math among students from third to eighth grades. The tests were revamped two years ago to more closely comply with NCLB's requirement that all students perform at grade level by 2014. MSA scores have generally gone up in the past two years.

This year's results, released last week, show significant gains in the elementary grades, where, for example, 75 percent of third-graders passed the reading test compared with 58 percent in 2003, and 69 percent of fifth-graders passed the math test compared with 55 percent two years ago. State officials attribute such strong showings to a standardized statewide curriculum that has helped smaller districts understand and meet higher expectations for achievement. Increased investments in early childhood education are also paying off.

Despite budget woes, teacher shortages and safety concerns, Baltimore students increased proficiency in reading and math in most grades. But a significant exception was in seventh and eighth grades, where only 40 percent of students passed the reading test, down about 3 points from last year. There were minor gains in math, but still fewer than 20 percent of city seventh and eighth graders are proficient.

That's much worse than the rest of the state and highlights the urgent need to provide these students with a lot of extra help to prevent them from dropping out by ninth grade. But the problem of sagging middle school achievement is not just a city issue. Even though the percentage of students who passed the reading and math tests in sixth, seventh and eighth grades went up statewide, overall proficiency levels in those grades is lower than in third, fourth and fifth grades.

One solution might be to keep more students in schools that cover kindergarten through eighth grade, rather than shifting them to schools that cover only middle grades, say from five to eight. Middle school teachers might also need more specialized training to deal with more specific subject matter as well as particular developmental needs of preadolescents. Addressing such issues would make the statewide tests useful not only to assess students but to correct systemic weaknesses as well.

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