Testing Scandal Raises Questions about Maryland Public Education Claims
Governor O’Malley for years has claimed that “Maryland has been ranked number one in public education.” Up to now, his claims have never been subjected scrutiny, especially by complacent political reporters.
Yet the cracks were always clearly present. For starters, in each of the past three years Maryland public schools students have had lower mean SAT scores than the national average for all public schools. In any class I have ever taken, a below average performance has never justified an A, let alone a “first in the class” ranking.
Next comes the source of O’Malley’s “first in the nation ranking.” He cites a publication of a Bethesda based non-profit, “Editorial Projects in Education.” This group includes as one of its officers Jerry Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools from 2000-2012. Using Jerry Weast to grade Maryland’s schools is a little like letting students grade their own final exam. It is not the most reliable way to objectively measure performance.
Next comes news from the U.S. Department of Education about Maryland’s scores on a national reading test, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP). These results have been systematically inflated by Maryland educators who were excluding special education and immigrant students learning English from taking the tests.
The scores were inflated because the state’s schools excluded a higher percentage of special-education students than every other state. Maryland excluded 66 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities on the NAEP, far higher than the national rate of 16 percent.
Because these students tend to be some of the lowest-performing, Maryland produced much higher overall reading scores. This year Maryland’s scores were the third highest of all the states in fourth-grade reading. However when the scores are recalibrated by the National Center for Education Statistics to account for the high exclusion rates, Maryland drops to 13th in the nation. In eighth-grade reading, its rank drops from seventh to 14th.
Caught in their deception, Maryland education officials now promised to reduce the number of special education students excluded from taking the test. State School Superintendent Lillian Lowery says she will discuss the issue with local superintendents, testing directors and special education supervisors across the state in the coming year, putting more pressure on the local school districts to limit the practice.
Ron George, the ranking Republican on the Education Subcommittee in the House Ways and Means committee and candidate for Governor, has taken a stronger position regarding the reading test cheating scandal.
“It has been uncovered that the O’Malley/Brown administration has been intentionally excluding a majority of learning-disabled and English learning students from national standardized testing in order to cheat their way to a #1 public education ranking. I am demanding answers about who in the administration was involved in this cheating scandal, what exactly they knew and when they knew it. I am calling on the leaders in the General Assembly to convene hearings to get to the bottom of this matter.”
Much like a high school senior who has gotten into a good college and now intends to slack off and opt for “pass/fail” grades only, Montgomery County School Superintendent has recently opined in the Washington Post in support of “a three-year moratorium on federally required standardized testing nationwide.” Starr is especially worried about using standardized test results in teacher evaluation systems, a practice he says he “vehemently opposes.” 
The MCPS Superintendent’s allergic response to standardized testing is not surprising given Starr’s increasing difficulty at spinning his own school system’s performance. One standardized test he will not be able to avoid is the college admission test, the SATs. On this test, MCPS’ results are becoming decidedly mixed.
Overall the MCPS system’s mean combined scores are higher than the state and national averages. That’s good. MCPS’s mean was 1648, the combined national average was 1498, and the state’s total was 1456. Results among MCPS high schools are uneven, however. Walt Whitman led our public schools with a combined 1901. Wootton, Poolesville and Churchill were also each above 1800.
Unfortunately seven MCPS high schools had mean SAT scores below the national average: Gaithersburg, Kennedy, Northwood, Paint Branch, Seneca Valley, Springbrook and Wheaton.
A central tenet of management practice, or at least private sector management, is “What gets measured, gets done.” Parents, students and the community deserve credible yardsticks with which to judge how our Maryland and Montgomery County Public schools are performing.
Mark Uncapher was Montgomery County Republican Chairman from 2008-2013, and is now the MCGOP Treasurer. Follow on twitter @Mark_Uncapher