Why Not The Best?

Our View: Rising State Achievement Test Scores Show School Reform Is Working

Now The Goal Should Be Raising The Standard From Minimum Competence To Excellence

July 23, 2009

The results of this year's Maryland School Assessments show big gains for Baltimore City. There are now 19 city elementary schools that test in the top one-third of schools statewide, meaning they are just as good as many of the elementary schools in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties. And for the first time in more than a decade, the city's school system no longer ranks at the bottom of Maryland school districts. Disparities that have long existed between city kids and their suburban peers and between African-American students and their white counterparts are fading. If the city can build on these successes, the schools could have a huge impact on keeping families with kids in Baltimore.

One of the most heartening developments revealed by the tests is that progress has been across the board, affecting every grade level and group of students. Over the last two years there's been a doubling of Baltimore children scoring at the advanced level in both reading and math. And the rapid gains that began at the elementary level are now showing up in middle school as well. This year, the biggest increases in math were in grades seven and eight, an 11 percentage-point jump that marked the first significant increase since 2004.

These kinds of results mean the city can now start concentrating on pushing kids to their full potential - not just worrying about minimum competence but making sure they are the best they can be. Fewer than 30 percent of city elementary and middle school students were proficient in basic arithmetic four years ago. Today, two-thirds are. If the city continues to improve at that rate, by next year overall proficiency could go up to 70 percent in math and 80 percent in reading.

That's a success story regardless of the other challenges schools are facing. But the next step is to get more city kids scoring in the "advanced" category of the MSA. Across all subjects, 21 percent of Baltimore elementary school students achieved that standard, better than the 19 percent who did in Prince George's and Dorchester counties but still well below the 33 percent in Baltimore County, 41 percent in Anne Arundel and 46 percent in Howard.

Baltimore schools CEO Andr?s Alonso says the latest results show city schools are reaching a tipping point. "We had a great jump last year, this year we pushed it up again," he says. "We went from being last in the state in elementary grades to now competing with suburban districts with far fewer challenges. Another year of this kind of improvement will change the conversation completely about what is possible for our kids."

This year's gains have also increased the superintendent's leverage to make the tough decisions that still lie ahead. Mr. Alonso wants to continue reducing the size of the central headquarters staff and promote even more rigorous standards of accountability for principals and teachers. He also wants to close more underperforming schools and create new public-private partnerships that benefit city schoolchildren.

Though the standardized tests aren't perfect, they have proved one thing: The state can develop a test, write a curriculum that covers what's on that test and teach students to pass it. Whether that means Maryland students are truly prepared to compete with the best in the country and the world is harder to know, and that's why the state needs to continue its efforts to develop true national standards. Even acknowledging that limitation of the tests, however, it's impossible not to see this year's scores as good news. The rate of improvement in Baltimore City has been as fast as any district in the country, and that's certainly worth celebrating.

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