Maryland's student test scores declined significantly for the first time in a decade, a drop officials attributed to the beginning of a tumultuous time in public education that will bring widespread changes to what is taught from kindergarten through high school.
The drops in test scores for both elementary and middle schools were seen in nearly every school district and were as great in the higher-performing districts of Howard and Montgomery counties as they were in Baltimore City.
Students did worst in math, with state scores dropping an average of 4 percentage points at both the elementary and middle-school grades. The only increase was seen in middle-school reading, which rose 1.3 percentage points. Elementary school reading also slipped about 2 percentage points.
Maryland State School Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery said that she believed a variety of factors contributed to the decline, chiefly the gradual introduction of new standards called the Common Core.
The Common Core is a set of voluntary national standards for kindergarten through 12th grade adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia several years ago. Schools must teach the new curriculum in all reading and math classrooms by the fall, but some systems in Maryland started using pieces of it earlier.
New tests that align with the new curriculum still are being developed, so the state is using the old Maryland School Assessment, which was given to 300,000 students in grades three through eight and doesn't necessarily test what students were taught.
"I do think people were more attuned to the Common Core than the public knew, and that does make for a misalignment between what we are teaching and what we are assessing," Lowery said.
Low teacher morale in the face of education reforms may also have played a role in lowering test scores, according to Lowery and the state teachers union. In addition to the new curriculum and new tests, a new teacher evaluation system is coming in the next several years.
"I refer to this as the tsunami of ed reform," said Betty H. Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association. "On an individual basis teachers are feeling very, very demoralized."
Some officials and experts questioned whether the declines were in fact tied to the new curriculum.
During the state school board meeting Tuesday, member James H. DeGraffenreidt asked Lowery if the state had completed an analysis to determine if the questions that students answered incorrectly were those not covered by the new curriculum. Lowery said the state had not.
"Is it real or is it just an excuse?" DeGraffenreidt asked.
Maryland is one of the first states in the nation to announce its test scores from this school year, so it is unclear if declines will be seen elsewhere, though Delaware scores also fell. Maryland did see scores dip in 2001 and 2002 while the state changed from old tests given in the 1990s to the current MSAs.
Bob Linn, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado who is an expert in assessments, said the declines Maryland saw this year were not that large, but he doesn't believe that they were all due to the transition to a new curriculum.
"When you switch to the Common Core, it doesn't happen overnight. Teachers are going to take a while to adjust to the new material. I wouldn't expect an immediate problem," he said.
Baltimore County scores dropped about 3 percentage points in math and 1 percentage point in reading in the elementary grades. But the county did not see the precipitous declines of other counties, such as Anne Arundel and Howard. Those counties had gone further in switching to the new lessons than Baltimore County.
Math scores in Anne Arundel fell 7 percentage points in the middle grades and 2 percentage points in elementary grades. In Howard County, math scores fell by 5 percentage points in middle school and 2 percentage points in elementary school.
Despite the drops in county school scores, dozens of elementary schools statewide had more than 85 percent of their students meeting standards.
"It is not a surprise to me that you have declines in math," said Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance. "The declines really don't matter if you are implementing a stronger curriculum."
Baltimore City math scores declined by nearly 5 percentage points in elementary and 4 percentage points in the middle grades. In middle schools, 47 percent of students passed the math test and 65 percent of students passed the reading test. In elementary schools, 70 percent of students passed both reading and math.
City schools interim CEO Tisha Edwards said the district had been bracing for dips. Some schools in the city, which began rolling out the new curriculum as early as 2011, completely abandoned the old one.
She said that the district expects it will take at least three years for test scores to begin reflecting what's happening in city classrooms.