Students in Baltimore region are moving past the pandemic in English, but many are flubbing math

Kenneth Palmer

Mirroring statewide trends, Baltimore City and Baltimore County students have rebounded from the pandemic in English, but both school systems saw dramatic drops in math scores on Maryland’s annual assessment of student achievement, according to results released Tuesday afternoon.

The city and county were the only two school systems in central Maryland with pass rates lower than the state average on the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as MCAP. However, the city school system’s scores on English rose significantly in most grades, continuing a pre-pandemic trend that began in 2018 when its increases outpaced those of other districts across the state. The county also saw large increases in certain grades in English.

On the other hand, the spring 2022 math scores were jaw-dropping. In 196 schools in the Baltimore region — including a handful in high-performing districts such as Howard and Carroll counties — less than 5% of students passed the math test in at least one grade.

In Baltimore City, some schools with large numbers of low-income families had fewer than 5% of students passing the math test in any grade. Large numbers of students did, however, pass in city schools with predominately middle-income families. Even in some of the highest-performing high schools in the region, small percentages of students passed Algebra I.

The dive in math scores has been seen across the country. Educators attribute the trend to the need to teach math concepts sequentially, and it being harder for parents to teach their children math at home during the pandemic than reading.

“Math definitely got hit hard,” said Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury at a state school board meeting Tuesday. Although the state’s schools have a lot of work to do to improve math instruction, he said, the scores are not as bad as they first appear.

“There is the gloom story of math but there are so many kids who are close to hitting that proficiency bar,” he said, noting that about 50% of fifth graders scored just below the passing mark for math.

But educators and experts are likely to question whether the unusually big increases in English and the decreases in math stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, or whether the overhaul of the test given last spring to make it shorter than previous versions contributed. The results are supposed to be comparable.

The test has always been considered difficult, and fewer than half of students were passing across the state even before the pandemic.

Results for a new version of the MCAP were delayed because of the time it took a statewide panel of teachers to set the standard for a passing score. The last time the test was given prior to last spring was in spring 2019, before the pandemic closed schools. MCAP is given in grades 3 through 8 in math and English, as well as in 10th grade for English and algebra. The U.S. Department of Education requires testing in every public school in the country, although no two states administer the same tests.

Baltimore City’s school system, which has the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the state, had the state’s lowest percentage of students passing the test in math and English. Statewide, 44% of students passed the English language arts test in grades 3 through 8, compared to 21% in the city and 38% in Baltimore County. The pass rates were 49% in Anne Arundel and Harford counties, 57% in Howard County and 60% in Carroll County.

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Baltimore City saw what would be considered significant gains in most grades in English even if students had not been through a pandemic. A 2 or 3 percentage point gain in the pass rate in any year is considered noteworthy, and there was at least a 2 percentage point increase in every grade but fifth and seventh since 2019.

The percentage of students passing the 10th grade English test in the city nearly doubled, rising to 34%.

Sonja Santelises, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, saw some increases in test scores for two years in a row before the pandemic hit. She attributes some of the growth that students have made since then to a shift in focus on how to teach reading and literacy years ago that is now coming to fruition.

“I think what we see is the sprouting of the seeds that were planted before the pandemic,” Santelises said.

The school system has retrained teachers in how to teach reading, with a focus more on using phonics and building up a student’s background knowledge to be able to understand what they are reading. “The investment in early literacy is starting to pay off,” she said, adding that the system is now beginning to scale up the approach across the school system. Every first-, second- and third-grade teacher is now using the new approach, she said.

Some of the students who learned to read under the new program are now hitting middle and high school, she said.

In addition, the school system has begun focusing attention on better preparing students for a career and college, which has meant a much more intense focus on helping students who don’t read and comprehend well by the time they get to ninth grade. “We are getting ready to expand reading for the ninth graders who have gaps,” she said.

The school system must now turn to looking more closely at math instruction, she said, acknowledging just how bad the scores are. She also said some of the scores may have been affected by the differences in the tests given in 2019 and 2022.

The MCAP results also show that more schools apparently are performing well in English than in past years. Besides perennial high flyers such as Roland Park, Mount Washington, Thomas Johnson, Tunbridge and Hampstead Hill elementary/middle schools, other schools also showed solid results in some grades. Those include: Commodore John Rodgers, Tench Tilghman and Henderson-Hopkins, all in East Baltimore, as well as Lakeland, Mount Royal, Dickey Hill and Armistead Gardens.

In Baltimore County, scores rose in English in third, fourth and sixth grades, and were up significantly in 10th grade. The county’s third graders went from a 37% pass rate in 2019 to 44% in 2022 in English.

Few schools had scores at or below 5%, and some schools stood out from the rest. Eastern Technical High School and Western School of Technology had a 95% pass rate or higher in English, and Pinewood Elementary had scores in the 89th and 90th percentile for the fourth and third grades, respectively.

Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams, who announced on Monday that he isn’t seeking another term after his contract is up June 30, said in a statement to the school community on Monday that the results are “troubling,” especially in math.

“We are deeply concerned by declining performance and are working relentlessly to improve and accelerate student learning,” he said in a written statement. “We are taking immediate and strategic steps to address learning gaps and ensure Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) students not only surpass state expectations but are also equipped with the resources and knowledge they need to reach their fullest potential.”

He wrote that some of the work includes reevaluating when and how teachers deliver learning material, offering targeted tutoring support, identifying students in need of more practice and creating an English language arts and math stakeholder group for feedback for next school year.

Of county students with disabilities, 15% received a passing score in English. Among English Language Learners, third graders made up the group with the highest percentage of students who passed the English test — 21.4%. That number is lower when it comes to math: 12.6% for students with disabilities, and 16.4% for English learners.

Asian American students in the county scored the highest in both English and math compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Students who are unhoused scored 5% or less in each math category. Only third and fourth graders scored above 5% in math among foster care students.

Schools in the northwest region of Baltimore County also had low math scores. Some were below 10% in every category, while others couldn’t break above 5%. They include Northwest Academy of Health Sciences, Woodlawn Middle School, Deer Park Middle Magnet School, Windsor Mill Middle School, Milford Mill Academy, Randallstown High School, Owings Mills High School, Franklin High School and New Town High School.

Other low-performing schools in math include Towson, Loch Raven, Perry Hall , Overlea, Kenwood, Sparrows Point and Chesapeake high schools; George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology; and Deep Creek Magnet Middle Community School.

In Baltimore County, the differences in achievement between economically disadvantaged students and those who aren’t is stark. Beginning in third grade, the passing rate on the English test of those who aren’t economically disadvantaged is twice that of those who are. That gap only grows, and by eighth grade, only 16% of disadvantaged students are passing the English test compared to 40% of those who aren’t.

Williams said it is important to note that there have been significant gaps in the performance of county students on state tests for years, and that the needs of students are growing.

“We have a rapidly growing English Language Learner (ELL) population and have seen a substantial increase in the number of students who are eligible for Free- and Reduced-price Meals (FARMS),” he said in a statement. “We have also seen significant growth in the number of students receiving special education services.”

He said his proposed $2.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year addresses these challenges.

State department officials said they have looked at how students did over time, and there is good news in the increases seen in English as students moved from third to fifth grade over a period of years. But the same analysis also showed that students were losing ground in math even before the pandemic hit.

Baltimore Banner data fellow Shreya Vuttaluru and data reporter Ryan Little contributed to this report.

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