The annual release of Maryland’s public school test scores on Tuesday told a puzzling tale of two academic subjects: While students posted some record-high pass rates on English language arts, math scores increased only slightly over last year and remain jaw-droppingly below 2019 levels.

Three quarters of Maryland public school students failed the state’s math tests in grades three through eight this spring, an indication of just how much math students didn’t learn during the year of Zoom classes, and how difficult it has been for teachers to catch them up.

The pandemic hasn’t slowed learning in English language arts, however, and pass rates in 23 of 24 school districts were higher this year than last on the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program, up substantially from 2019. Nearly half — 47% — of students in the state passed the English language arts test in grades three through eight.

Students passed the English test at nearly twice the rate they passed the math test.

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“What we are doing in literacy is working, and now all we need to do is master it,” said state schools superintendent Mohammed Choudhury. “We had some of the highest jumps in nearly a decade.” Choudhury said the move toward a phonics-based approach to reading instruction is making a difference.

The math results also underscore what appears to be an underlying issue with math instruction or curriculum that existed long before the pandemic and has yet to be explained. Education leaders have acknowledged the problem, and state and local school district leaders are just now beginning to address it.

City, Harford schools see greatest improvements in English

Baltimore City again posted significant gains in English, with growth that outpaced the state and all but four other districts. The percentage of city students passing the test has increased every year since 2016.

Elementary students gained 3.6 percentage points compared to 2022 to a 22% pass rate, and middle school students gained 5.5 percentage points from last school year to a 28% pass rate. Overall, the city saw a 4.5 percentage point gain, double the average state gain. And the city has made significant progress for the past five years. Just 14% of students passed the elementary English language test in 2016.

Still, only a quarter of city students passed the English language arts test this spring in elementary and middle school — the lowest pass rate in the state — but city students continue to close the gap. In math, the story is different. Nine percent of city students passed the math test, up slightly from last year.

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“I don’t think anyone would say this movement is sufficient or where we ought to end, but I think we should pause and celebrate as a district,” Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said. “The commitment we made as a district has yielded a momentum that many people thought wasn’t possible.”

Santelises said she believes the seven-year focus on phonics and building student knowledge is now embedded in the schools and the gains will continue. Jumps in seventh and eighth grade scores were particularly important, she said, because those students had learned to read as the system began changing its curriculum.

Baltimore County scores in English language arts rose 1.5 percentage points to a pass rate of 39% in grades three through eight. As in the city, most of the gains were seen in the middle grades. The county’s increases were some of the smallest in the state.

Twenty percent of the county’s students in elementary and middle school passed the math, but most of the gains were in the elementary grades.

“We acknowledge the scores are not where we a want them to be,” said Melissa DiDonato, Baltimore County’s chief academic officer. She said the county’s students are capable of achieving at a higher level.

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Changes to the reading instruction in elementary grades are in process. A new curriculum is being implemented this fall, and teachers, principals and administrators are being retrained in the new approach, she said. And the system will analyze what is being taught in classrooms on a day-to-day basis. “We do hope that part of the change in curriculum will propel that forward momentum,” DiDonato said.

Both the city and the county’s middle school math scores lagged far behind most of the state.

In Anne Arundel County, 51% of middle school students passed the English test; in Howard County, 61% passed; and in Carroll County, 66% passed.

In Harford County, scores rose 8.5 percentage points to a pass rate of 54%. “Seeing these scores increase has been our singular focus for the last two years in particular,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said in a statement. “We’re really pleased to see this progress and how the work of students and staff is paying off.”

Of school systems in the Baltimore region, only Harford students surpassed the city’s growth rate, making up all the ground lost in the pandemic and then some.

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Fewer elementary students passed in Carroll than the year before.

Fifty-four percent of students statewide passed the 10th grade English test, up about 3 percentage points.

State education leaders, speaking after the state school board meeting on Tuesday, said they believed the record gains seen in English were the result of the investments made in both new curriculum and more money to school systems.

“We’re seeing literacy scores now that are the highest in nearly a decade. We have a lot of work to do in math. We are still catching up from the pandemic. But I believe that we’re seeing the beginnings of investments in public education through the Blueprint paying off for our children and our families,” said Joshua Michael, vice president of the state school board.

A math-instruction overhaul is on the way

In math, 26% of students in Anne Arundel County passed and in Harford County 29% passed. In Howard and Carroll counties, 40% of students passed, making them among the highest-performing in the state. In general, counties with higher pass rates saw smaller increases from last year.

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The Maryland State Department of Education is hoping to boost student proficiency in math by offering school districts grants of up to $10 million to establish “a permanent tutoring corps” to help struggling math students. The grants will prioritize middle school students and Algebra students at any level. Only 17% of students statewide passed the Algebra I assessment this spring.

Under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the state is requiring school system leaders to pick high-quality materials to teach students math. The process is just beginning. Choudhury said that he believes many Maryland teachers, particularly elementary school instructors, are uncertain about how to teach math since the implementation of the Common Core more than a decade ago. That approach emphasizes conceptual thinking rather than learning math facts. Choudhury said both are needed to do well in math.

“Everyone is still in this confused state about how to teach math,” Choudhury said.

School leaders are also are beginning to turn their attention to math. For instance, Santelises said last spring she is putting in place changes to improve math instruction.

Achievement gaps persist for disadvantaged students

Students improved their scores on the fifth grade science test, but the eighth grade scores have continued to slide since the pandemic. In its Tuesday presentation of test results, the state acknowledged concerns over the low percentage of eighth graders who have passed — 26% statewide — compared to 35% in fifth grade.

Maryland’s MCAP is considered a difficult test. If students can pass it they are considered on track to graduate and go to college or on to a career.

In English, the test results were promising for all groups of students, including economically disadvantaged students, immigrants learning English and students with disabilities. Students of all races made gains on the English tests compared to last year.

Gaps in achievement remain, however. For instance, there’s a 35 percentage point difference between students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language and the statewide averages.