Baltimore test scores: A good starting point

City schools are competitive but not yet where they need to be

December 10, 2009

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the gold standard of academic achievement tests. The federally sponsored exam sets higher standards than most states, and its results allow educators to compare not only how well students are doing in different parts of the country but also how they stack up against their peers in Singapore, Japan and other advanced industrial nations.

That's why it took guts for Baltimore City to participate for the first time last year in the NAEP math test for urban school districts. It's far tougher than the Maryland School Assessment exams given by the state, and the city could have been humiliated if it ended up dead last among the 18 big-city school systems it was up against around the country. So school officials were understandably elated Tuesday when the results came in showing city fourth-graders scoring higher than their peers in nine other cities and eighth-graders scoring better than those in three.

That performance put Baltimore solidly in the middle ranks of other large, urban school systems, even though it's the poorest district tested and has a significantly larger minority population than many others. City schools chief Andrés Alonso says Baltimore's good showing suggests it is doing a better job of educating low-income, African-American students than most districts around the country.

Still, that doesn't change the fact that none of the cities participating in the test - or for that matter, school districts nationally - came anywhere near having two-thirds of their students scoring at or above the level considered proficient by NAEP's standards. Yet that is the goal many experts believe schools must achieve in order to keep America competitive with the rest of the world.

By that standard, currently only 33 percent of students nationally score proficient or better on the NAEP exam, and among the results just reported, the highest-ranked city, Charlotte, N.C., had only 45 percent of its students score proficient or better. Baltimore trailed far behind with just 13 percent.

Granted, the NAEP standards are much higher than the state MSA exams, so the 64 percent of city students who scored at the basic level or higher on NAEP would probably have been considered fully proficient on the state test. But that doesn't mean they are competitive from the global perspective the federal exam is intended to reflect. Locally, the results will be small comfort to parents of students who, when they leave school, won't just be competing with their peers in Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee but with young people from around the world.

Baltimore can take heart from evidence that reform efforts here are making a difference and that the city is at least keeping up with other large, urban systems that have fewer challenges and have been at it a lot longer. Since this is the first time Baltimore students have taken the test, NAEP will establish a baseline from which further progress can be measured. But the bottom line is that the scores released this week shouldn't so much offer reassurance as serve to spur even more ambitious reforms in the years to come.

Readers respond
Urban school systems have a long way to go. Just doing better than other urban districts is not something to celebrate. When the urban systems turn out students that do as well as their suburban counterparts, then celebrate.

However, it is important to remember than change takes time and continued effort by all involved.


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