Only about one-third of Maryland fifth and eighth graders passed the state’s first science test given since the pandemic started, providing solid evidence of what school officials have known is a significant learning loss.

Statewide, 30% of fifth graders passed — showing a 10 percentage point decline from 2019. Eighth graders fared better, with 35% passing, a level nearly the same as before the pandemic, which began in March 2020. Third graders were in the first grade when the pandemic began, and educators have been concerned that the youngest children — who had the most difficulty paying attention to online classes — would suffer the most.

The Maryland State Department of Education released the test results Tuesday.

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Test results varied by school district, with Baltimore City students scoring the lowest rate of all 24 districts in the state. About 9% of fifth graders in the city’s system passed. Eighth graders did slightly better, with a 12.3% pass rate.

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the city’s results reinforced the need to give students and teachers more support, hire more qualified science teachers and give students adequate time to complete science labs. She said this year’s results were slightly better than they had been in 2019.

In Baltimore County, 27.6% of fifth graders and 28% of eighth graders passed the state test. By comparison, Carroll County’s fifth graders outscored all other districts with a pass rate of 44.8%, while 54% of Queen Anne County’s eighth graders passed.

There was a wide disparity among pass rates for students based on demographics. While 69% of Asian eighth graders passed the science test, 20% of two other groups — Black and Latino students — passed. Economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities, had even lower pass rates.

State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said he expects students to rebound this year, and that next year’s results will become a baseline to move forward.

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The results “confirm that the learning of all students suffered during the pandemic and also underscore the unacceptable achievement gap that continues to persist for our English learners, Black students, and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds,” Choudhury wrote in an email. “A return to normal is not good - our goal is to ensure that every Maryland student has access to excellent educational opportunities.... especially those who have been historically underserved.”

The English language arts and math assessments given last spring to students in grades three through eight will not be released until January, eight months after they were given. State officials attributed the delay to the need to set passing and failing standards for the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program, the statewide test that the federal government requires be given each year in every state.

The new test takes significantly less time to take than the old one, down from 240 minutes to 160 minutes for math and reading. A cadre of teachers is determining what score students must achieve for each of four levels — beginning, developing, proficient and distinguished. The so called standard-setting process takes about six months.

Once the state has determined the standards for each test in all of the grades, Choudhury said, test results will be released much more quickly. “My goal is to get it in their hands before the summer starts,” Choudhury said. “So they can use it in the fall.”

Choudhury acknowledged that the state has been criticized for failing to release the results of testing, saying people have even accused the agency of hiding the test results.

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Past state education leaders had promised that new assessment results would be released more quickly, but the pandemic lengthened the time it took to set passing standards. State officials are also working on making the reading and math tests adapt to the test taker. A student who answers easy questions quickly will jump to more advanced questions while a student who struggles to answer easier questions will move through the test differently.

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