Two years ago, Dropout Nation took aim at its home state of Maryland for excluding as many as 66  percent of children with disabilities — including those condemned to its special education ghettos — from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Given that, on average, 12 percent of school-aged children are labeled special ed cases — and are likely to suffer from the consequences of shoddy teaching and curricula — the more kids Maryland excluded from NAEP testing, the easier it is for it to essentially make the performance of traditional districts and other school operators appear better than they are. This was particularly true in the case of the Old Line State. Its test-cheating gave the perception that its schools were Lake Woebegones in American public education, essentially allowing politicians and school leaders to avoid all but the most-tepid of systemic reforms.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoBut as a Dropout Nation analysis of exclusion data from the reading portion of this year’s NAEP shows, Maryland is no longer the worst offender. The bad news, however, is that the Land of Crab Cakes — along with numerous other states — still excludes far higher numbers of kids in special ed and English Language Learners than allowed under federal law. As a result of Maryland’s deceit, it once again lands on this year’s edition of the NAEP Dishonor Roll.

As many of you already know, the federal government has long been cracking down on the penchant of states (and the school operators they oversee) to exclude large numbers of our most-vulnerable children, the ones damaged the most by the failures of American public education, and ultimately, conceal how poorly they are serving children. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, all but five percent of children in schools are tested on state-level tests used for measuring performance. As a result of that policy, the failures of districts to properly serve poor, minority, and immigrant children (who are often the ones most-likely to be condemned to special ed or need help in mastering English) has been revealed in full.

Four years ago, the U.S. Department of Education went further by requiring districts and states to test 95 percent of their entire student populations overall and 85 percent of children in special ed ghettos and those in ELL programs. Many states have behaved admirably, excluding fewer than 15 percent of special ed and ELL students from NAEP testing. This group includes both the most-aggressive reform states (Indiana for example), as well as those who have lagged behind in advancing systemic reform (Virginia). But other states have continued to exclude high levels of its worst-served kids from the exams, and thus, appearing to do better in improving student achievement than they really are.

To help shed light on the worst offenders, Dropout Nation took a look at exclusion rate data from the 2013 NAEP. This time around, the focus is on the states that exclude 15 percent or more of kids stuck in special education and ELL ghettos from NAEP’s reading exam. Focusing on NAEP reading makes sense because literacy is critical to kids mastering math and science, and at the end of the day, understanding the world around them.

The good news is that no state excludes more than 36 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders in special ed and ELL programs from this year’s NAEP. But this isn’t all that heartening. There are still far too many states excluding far too many kids from the exam.

As we mentioned at the beginning, Maryland is no longer the worst offender in most of the categories. But it doesn’t mean it is being honest. The state excluded 36 percent of eighth-grade ELL students from this year’s NAEP. While this is 25 percentage points lower than two years ago, it still led the nation in category of test-cheating. The Old Line State was also tied for second place (with Kentucky) for excluding the highest percentage of eighth-grade kids in special ed; tied with Montana for fourth place for excluding the highest number of fourth-graders condemned to special ed; and tied with Georgia as the third-worst in excluding fourth-grade ELL students.

As a result of reducing its level of dishonesty, Maryland’s public education system can no longer claim to be the nation’s best — or even claim the top ranking on Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts survey. Thirty-two percent of Old Line State fourth-graders read Below Basic on NAEP 2015, versus 23 percent two years ago; 24 percentage of eighth-graders were functionally illiterate in 2015, six points higher than in 2013.

Plenty of Maryland politicians and school leaders want to blame the lower level of exclusions for lowered performance. But what they fail to admit is that the high exclusion levels have been part of a longstanding effort to lie about how well public education has been serving children, especially those worst-served by it. If Maryland’s school operators were doing such a great job for kids, performance wouldn’t have declined. This can be seen in the case of Tennessee. Though the Volunteer State is still on this year’s Dishonor Roll, it has significantly reduced the percentages of kids excluded from NAEP — including a 19 percentage point decline in the number of eighth-graders in special ed kept from the test — with insignificant decline in achievement. This is because Tennessee has, until the last year, been strong in advancing systemic reform.

What has happened is that Maryland is finally telling some of the truth about how poorly its districts and other school operators are serving children. But those steps aren’t enough. The Old Line State must stop its test-cheating, and exclude even fewer ELL students and kids in special ed when the next round of NAEP is taken in 2017.

But as Dropout Nation has noted, Maryland is no longer the worst offender in most categories. Nor is the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, which oversees schools serving children of the nation’s military. It now excludes just 11 percent of fourth-graders in its special ed ghettos, 11 percent of fourth-grade ELL students, six percent of eight-graders in special ed, and 10 percent of eighth-grade ELL students. Thanks to its decision to deal honestly in discussing how its schools provide education, Department of Defense is no longer on the Dishonor Roll.

Becoming more-dishonest is Georgia. The Peach State was the worst in the nation in excluding fourth- and eighth-grade kids in special ed, keeping 25 percent of each group of students from taking NAEP this year. Although the levels of exclusion declined by, respectively, six and seven percentage points from levels two years ago, Georgia has done far less than either Maryland or Department of Defense to reduce its test-cheating. It also ranked third in excluding fourth-grade ELL students, keeping 17 percent of them from taking the federal test. The only good news is that it only excluded 11 percent of eighth-grade ELL students from NAEP, not landing on the dishonor roll in this category.

Also becoming more-dishonest is Kentucky. By excluding a whopping 36 percent of eighth-grade ELL students from NAEP, it was the worst in that category; this is 12 percentage points higher than levels two years ago. Kentucky came or tied in second place in excluding fourth- and eighth-grade kids in special ed and tied for fifth in the percentage of eighth-grade ELL students kept from taking the exam.

When it comes to excluding fourth-grade special ed kids, Georgia and Kentucky are followed by Texas (20 percent), the aforementioned Maryland, Montana (18 percent), Michigan (16 percent), Oregon, 16 percent), Louisiana (15 percent), and Tennessee (15 percent). Altogether, nine states excluded 15 percent or more of kids condemned to special ed ghettos (and other kids with disabilities) from NAEP testing, thus artificially bolstering their performance on the reading portion of the exam.

naep_reading_2015_special_ed_fourthgrade_exclusionIn the category of ELL fourth-graders, Kentucky was followed by New Jersey (21 percent), the aforementioned Georgia and Maryland, Michigan (17 percent), South Dakota (17 percent), District of Columbia (16 percent), Louisiana (15 percent), and Rhode Island (15 percent). Altogether, nine states, along with Department of Defense, excluded 15 percent or more of ELL students from NAEP testing, and in the process, making their systems look better than they likely are.

naep_reading_2015_ELL_fourthgrade_exclusionWhen it comes to eighth-grade special ed and other students with disabilities, Georgia, Kentucky, and Maryland are followed by Tennessee (19 percent), North Dakota (15 percent), and Texas (15 percent). Six states altogether excluded 15 percent or more of eighth-graders in special ed from the federal test.

naep_reading_2015_special_ed_eighthgrade_exclusionAs for exclusion rates for eighth-grade ELL kids? Maryland is followed by D.C. (33 percent), Florida (27 percent), Oregon (23 percent), the aforementioned Kentucky, Nebraska (21 percent), Arizona (17 percent), Massachusetts (17 percent), Michigan (16 percent), and North Carolina (15 percent). In total, nine states and the District of Columbia excluded at least 15 percent of eighth-grade ELL students from the reading portion of the exam.

naep_reading_2015_ELL_eighthgrade_exclusionAll of these states deserve scorn for engaging in the kind of virtual academic fraud that would not be tolerated from a district if it did this on a statewide standardized test. District of Columbia, Florida, and Tennessee, all of who have been leaders in advancing systemic reform, deserve special criticism for this form of test-cheating. The Obama Administration and its successor must take stronger action to stop such high levels of exclusion from NAEP; this includes adding asterisks to state results just to alert the public about these deceptions.

But once gain, the latest NAEP exclusion numbers once again remind reformers that it will take eternal vigilance to keep states and school operators honest in order to transform American public education.