With children across the Baltimore metro area returning to public schools next week, their heads full of curiosity and dread, a few questions naturally precede their arrival:

  1. What are they doing when they’re supposed to be studying?
  2. What are they doing when they might be playing after-school sports?

It’s pretty clear they’re not spending much time hitting the books, and they’re not quite as interested in going out for the varsity football team as they once were.

This, according to figures supplied this week on the front page of The Sun, drawn from the newest compilation of student academic scores across Maryland, and a new High School Athletics Participation Survey.

First, the academics, which analyzed last year’s third-through-eighth graders:

In the city of Baltimore, only 20 percent of all children passed the English test, and only 14 percent passed math.

In Baltimore County, 37 percent passed English, and 26 percent math. In Howard County, 58 percent passed English and 48 percent math. In Anne Arundel County, 49 percent passed English and 37 percent math.

In Harford County, 48 percent passed English and 39 percent passed math. In Carroll County, 60 percent passed English and 53 percent passed math.

Aside from raw numbers, keep something else in mind. These are children we’re talking about, and most of them are failing to keep up in the most basic keys to succeeding once they’re on their own.

Obviously, there’s more to life than reading and math. Sound mind, sound body. But as we head into the final weekend before next Tuesday’s opening bells, there’s a new survey that tabulates a slight drop in school sports participation.

Maryland ranks 23rd – middle of the pack – in state school sports participation.

Across the country, participation fell slightly among boys (2 percent) and rose slightly among girls (1 percent). This comes at a time when the population keeps growing.

The biggest drop, not surprisingly, is football – a drop of more than 30,000 boys across the country. Andrew Luck isn’t the only one walking away from the game.

Boys may dream of scoring touchdowns, but their parents are absorbing medical reports of brain injuries and steering the kids elsewhere.  

Lacrosse, for example, among boys and girls, has gained more than 100,000 new players nationwide over the past 15 years.

But all of these numbers still leave us with some trends. Academically, well under half of Baltimore metro area children are passing standardized tests. And though the population’s growing, the number of kids playing organized school sports is dipping.

So what is it the kids will be doing when they return to school next week?

A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).