Nearly 90 percent of Baltimore elementary and middle schools fell short of academic targets on state assessments this year, signaling a trend that education officials nationwide say will eventually label most American schools as failures.
Only 15 of the 141 city schools met federally mandated progress goals in math and reading on the Maryland School Assessments, according to state and city school data. And the schools that didn't meet the adequate yearly progress goals included some of the highest-performers in the city and the state, illustrating the continuing debate about the embattled No Child Left Behind Act.
"It's a crude measure and an unsophisticated system in that it tarnishes schools with the same brush," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan group that has tracked the nation's progress under the law since its inception. "It's one of these things that everyone knows there's a problem, but no one has figured out how to fix it."
The federal law, passed in 2001, requires that 100 percent of America's students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. In arguing to overhaul the law, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it "fundamentally broken," and his department projected that 80 percent of schools would not meet the goal next year.
The percentage of city schools that failed to meet AYP — 89 percent of schools — drastically rose when compared with previous years. Last year, 60 percent of schools tested in grades three through eight failed to meet the targets; 45 percent fell short in 2009.
Jennings said he knew of only a handful of districts that had as high a percentage of schools that did not meet the goal as Baltimore. But despite the federal law's flaws, he said, the district should take seriously the number of schools and students that fell short this year.
"The general message is still a sobering message," he said. "As a country we wanted to move to proficiency for all students. What this is showing is that a large number of kids in Baltimore City are not achieving proficiency, and that should be of concern to all of us."
Since he arrived four years ago, Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso has consistently denounced AYP, though he acknowledged that it still causes angst in school communities throughout the city. He said that because the city's overall scores fell this year — 3 percentage points in reading and 5 in math — the system paid even less attention to how many schools made the goal.
"I think that an arbitrary standard that is not reflective of progress being made at the school level is always going to be unfair," Alonso said. "And in a year when progress came to a standstill, AYP was almost irrelevant to me.
"But we will get to a point in a year or two where there are no schools making AYP; we are getting to a point where regardless of the school, they will be considered failing. That is very problematic."
And it's a problem that is felt throughout the state. This year, 55 percent of the state's schools met AYP, compared with 70 percent last year, and 258 Maryland schools missed their targets for the first time. Seventy-six more schools joined the state's school improvement list, meaning they failed to make the academic goals two years in a row and are on watch for interventions.
When the results of the MSAs were announced, state officials said that they expected the number to continue rising, and that even the highest-performing districts like Montgomery County, where the majority of schools now exceed 90 percent proficiency, will hit a ceiling.
In Baltimore County, the number of schools that failed to make AYP targets also rose. This year, 34 percent of schools fell short of their targets, up from 25 percent in 2010.
"It is important to note that in 2011, only one Baltimore County middle school was added to the 13 already on the state School Improvement list," school system spokesman Charles Herndon said in an email. The school system is "just beginning to explore" the reasons for school performance on the MSAs, he said.
In order for a school to make AYP, all subgroups must achieve a standard set by the state on the MSAs. Each year, the state is required to raise the standards, called annual measurable objectives, to gradually move toward the 100 percent goal.
The subgroups include students by race, such as black or Hispanic; socioeconomic background, such as children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches; or special-education students. Student attendance is also a factor.
In the city, seven charter schools and seven traditional schools made AYP this year, in addition to Lois T. Murray Elementary, a special-education school that took an alternative school assessment.