There’s a surprising paradox in the 2023 Maryland School Report Card ratings released Wednesday. Across the state, fewer schools received four and five stars in the education department’s annual evaluation, even as test scores rose this year. So what happened?

Are the state’s schools really getting worse? Probably not.

A post-pandemic student slouch may be dragging down the ratings. Even though school attendance is gradually improving, too many students still aren’t showing up regularly.

“We were anticipating a greater rebound. Our students are still challenged in getting back into the classroom,” said Chandra Haislet, assistant Maryland state superintendent. Chronic absenteeism, defined as a student missing 10% of school days a year, became such a problem during the pandemic that the Maryland State Department of Education changed its school-rating formula for a year. This year, it’s back to normal.

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A Baltimore Banner analysis showed that about 163 schools would have had a higher star rating if the state had not changed the formula back to the way it was done in 2019. There is also a direct correlation between schools that got high star ratings and those that had low rates of chronic absenteeism.

Maryland gives schools one to five stars based on both academic and nonacademic factors. This year’s ratings are the fourth time the state has used the rating system, which was paused during the pandemic. A school can earn up to 100 points based on a series of indicators, including academic achievement, academic progress, the proficiency of English language learners, chronic absenteeism, whether a school has a well-rounded curriculum, and a school survey.

Schools are still not earning as many stars as they did before the pandemic. While many have moved out of the lowest rating, there are far more three-star and two-star schools than there were in 2019.

“What we have also seen is that our math scores have not returned to pre-pandemic levels,” Haislet said. Education research has shown that when students have better attendance their academic achievement rises, but Haislet said research appears to show that is more correlated to math achievement than English achievement.

Maryland’s annual test scores for the 2022-2023 school year showed that students posted record-high pass rates on the English language test, but math scores increased only slightly and are still abysmally low.

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Only a quarter of students statewide were proficient on the math tests in grades three through eight, while about half of students passed the English test.

Baltimore County’s Eastern Technical High School scored highest in the state’s report card ratings, just above Prince George’s Academy of Health and Sciences. Baltimore County had seven schools in the top 15.

Baltimore City schools’ growth outpaced the state’s average. The most positive growth came in the lowest-rated schools, with 19 schools moving from one-star to two-star ratings. Still, 15 schools received a one star, the highest number in the region, and the city still has more one-star schools than it did before the pandemic. The proportion of three-, four- and five-star schools in the city rose from 25% to 35% this year.

“The rapid improvements we’re seeing are signaling that we’re on the right track,” said Joan Dabrowski, the city’s chief academic officer. The city has used federal pandemic dollars for intensive tutoring, summer school and more learning time, she said. “Those results, we see that paying off in the star ratings and other data that we’re looking at.” Matt Hornbeck, the principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, an elementary/middle school in Patterson Park, said it’s seen some success fighting chronic absenteeism.

Last school year, he said, staff noticed an increase in absences. They were on track to have a chronic absenteeism rate of 21% by the end of the year. Prior to the pandemic, it was only 6.7%. So, during last school year’s fourth quarter, a group of teachers tracked down students who were missing between nine and 14 days of school, on the cusp of being considered chronically absent. They visited their homes and talked to parents about chronic absenteeism. By the end of the year, the rate was down to 15%. The goal for this school year is to go down to 11%, and right now, they are at 8.7%, the principal said.

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This year, Hampstead Hill’s middle school students ranked in the 97th percentile in the state, meaning only 3% of Maryland middle schools outperformed them. Hampstead Hill’s elementary school students were in the 89th percentile.

People want to be at this school, according to Hornbeck, and he makes sure that it maintains its welcoming environment. He provided a music teacher shortly after Jill Vasbinder Morrison, the PTO president, requested one, and made the singing of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a weekly tradition, per another parent’s request.

Catherine Jimenez Reyes, an eighth grader, remembers how teachers helped her make friends when she first enrolled four years ago. “When you’re new, you’re shy, you don’t really talk to people,” she said.

Corey Cann said his family considered moving out of the city but heard good things about Hampstead Hill’s diversity and curriculum. Now his daughter, Milan, is happy to go to kindergarten every day and is quick to show her parents all the green stars in her folder.

In Baltimore County, attendance is “trending in a very positive direction,” said chief academic officer Melissa DiDonato, though she couldn’t provide the overall rate. The reason for the improvement, she said, is the Here for It Attendance Awareness Campaign that started last school year.

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Each school has an attendance committee that keeps an eye on attendance data. If students are absent for a day or two, committee members are reaching out to their families to find out why and to offer help. Schools incentivize good attendance with competitions against other schools for the best attendance or prizes for students with good attendance.

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that the state had fewer schools with four and five star ratings this year, and that only quarter of students statewide were proficient on state math tests in grades three through eight. This story has also been updated to correctly identify Baltimore County’s Eastern Technical High School, and to correct the spelling of Joan Dabrowski’s surname.

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