Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Better Off Truant?

Originally published in City Journal

Sean Kennedy Oct 5, 2023

For generations, American politicians and experts have lamented the dropout crisis. They warn that quitting school leads students to povertyprison, and discontent. For many Baltimore schoolchildren, however, recent test results show leaving school might be their best option—or at least, it wouldn’t hurt.

Last year, Baltimore’s public schools spent $22,000 per student, a record figure slated to rise over the next decade under the state’s $30 billion education-spending plan, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. City schools have also raked in $799 million in Covid relief.

The latest test results suggest that students and taxpayers shouldn’t waste their time and money on Baltimore’s public schools. The federal Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as The Nation’s Report Card, ranks Baltimore City Public Schools as one of the worst public school systems for academic achievement. In fact, only one large school system consistently underperforms Baltimore—Detroit.

According to the 2022 NAEP test, only 10 percent of fourth-graders and 15 percent of eighth-graders in Baltimore’s public schools are proficient in reading. While these dismal figures are essentially unchanged from a decade ago, the number of students scoring at the “basic” level or possessing “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade” has fallen precipitously since 2013. Then, 45 percent of fourth-graders and 61 percent of eighth-graders ranked at or above basic in reading; by 2022, respectively, only 30 percent and 50 percent did so.

Math scores tell an even bleaker story. Ten years ago, 19 percent of fourth-graders and 13 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient in math. Last year, only 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders did so. The proportion of students scoring at basic fell by 50 percent since 2013. These declines cannot be attributed to the pandemic-related school closures alone, since Baltimore’s math and reading scores dropped by 25 percent on average from 2013 to 2019.

Last week, officials released school and grade-level results for the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAP) exam but subjected those to new “de-identification” policies that “suppress” (read: obscure) some grade- and student-category results. More granular data concerning the 2022–2023 state exam scores for Baltimore City paint the same abysmal picture.

Across all grades, 26 percent of students in Baltimore City are proficient in English and Language Arts (ELA), while only 8 percent are proficient in math. Even Baltimore City’s “gifted and talented” learners lag behind. More than half of its advanced learners fail to score as proficient in math, and 29 percent score below grade-level in ELA. If the best and the brightest are performing so poorly, how about everyone else?

As students advance through Baltimore schools, they appear to do progressively worse at math. While 17 percent of Baltimore City schools’ third-graders score at grade-level in math, only 3 percent of students are proficient by eighth grade—and among those 132 pupils, only one scored in the top category as a “distinguished leader,” having exceeded the state’s minimum proficiency requirements. At the same time, the share of all students scoring in the test’s lowest category (“beginning learner”) in math rose from 49 percent in third grade to 68 percent by eighth, with the share of exceptional learners sliding further.

A full 40 percent of Baltimore’s 32 public and charter high schools saw not a single student achieve math proficiency on the 2022–23 exam. But it is not a matter of a few failing schools dragging down the totals. Just 14 schools managed to get half their students to grade-level proficiency in English, and not one reached that milestone in mathematics.

School-choice advocates looking for bright spots among charter or specialty schools will be disappointed. Some of the city’s worst performers are charters or specialize in arts or STEM curricula (or purport to do so). At KIPP Harmony Academy, for example, Baltimore’s affiliate of the highly touted KIPP network, entering third-graders outperform their public school peers in English and math—but eighth-graders fare just as poorly as their counterparts across the city.

Even Baltimore’s best schools are mediocre by any objective standard. While Tunbridge Public Charter School, a pre-K through grade 8 charter-lottery school, achieved a 60 percent ELA proficiency rate, only 27 percent of its students perform at grade level in math. If that’s excellence, the bar is far too low.

Baltimore is beset by myriad challenges including high poverty rates (though this measure has declined over the past decade) and staggering violent crime rates (which have spiked). But neither of these explains or solves what’s ailing the city’s schools. The culture of fraud and corruption is so endemic that nonexistent “ghost” students pad the schools’ enrollment and budget. The Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education has substantiated allegations that school administrators have falsified academic records, but two principals caught changing grades in their previous positions have landed new top jobs in Baltimore’s schools. In 2020, the city’s powerful teachers’ union intimidated one of its members for daring to use her classroom to conduct remote learning while the union pressed for extended school closures. The message from the top is “don’t try, it’s not worth it.”

Things have gotten so bad that Baltimore kids might be better off watching Sesame Street reruns than venturing into Charm City’s failing schools.

Sean Kennedy is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.