On the right track

June 17, 2007

There's a lot of good news in the results of this year's state assessment tests. Some gains were scored in all 24 districts, and it's especially noteworthy that minority students are closing the achievement gap, a key goal of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Students with disabilities are making similar progress.

Baltimore, which is constantly bringing up the rear among the state's school districts, showed improvements in nearly every tested grade. But while the city and the state are moving in the right direction, there are still gaps that need to be addressed.

Across the state, the proportion of students who are proficient in reading and math increased from last year. Elementary schools showed the most progress in narrowing the racial gap, with 70 percent of African-Americans in grades three through five passing the assessments, compared with 89 percent of whites.

Officials attribute the overall good results to more consistent emphasis on a voluntary state curriculum that's quite explicit about what students should know at various grade levels. Increased and better-coordinated professional development has also helped, as well as efforts to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.

That's especially true in Baltimore, where earlier and more-aggressive recruiting resulted in more than 90 percent of new hires last year being highly qualified, a standard that the city school system will have to continue to match, if not exceed.

It's also worth noting that among the city's best-performing schools were both traditional and charter schools, showing that students can be taught effectively using different approaches. Higher expectations of minority and special-ed students as well as teaching more students with special needs in general education classes are also considered critical to the continued improvement in their academic performance.

But persistent problems remain. Too many schools in Baltimore are still educating students at levels that are woefully inadequate. Despite some progress, fewer than half of the city's seventh- and eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, and barely one-quarter are proficient in math.

Generally, middle schools also remain troubled. This year, student proficiency dropped statewide nearly 10 percentage points between fifth and eighth grade in reading and more than 20 points in math. Tackling the middle school sag is critical, as students will have to pass high school assessments as a graduation requirement within two years.

As an annual measure of how Maryland students are doing, this year's assessments are encouraging, but there's still a lot of hard work ahead. It's way too soon to rest on these laurels.

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