School 'grading' only a first step Few performance standards met

November 20, 1990|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

The state's new, unflattering report on public school performance is the first step in an ambitious, five-year improvement program aimed at holding schools accountable.

And state education officials say that accountability is a key element in winning increased public aid for education.

"We have to be able to tell the public there is a payoff," said Joseph L. Shilling, state school superintendent, who released the 60-page Maryland School Performance Program Report yesterday.

The report, prompted by a governor's commission on school performance, showed that Maryland schools failed to meet all but two of the state's eight performance standards in the last school year.

The standards, however, are simply goals that the schools are aiming to meet. School systems around the state will not be expected to meet the standards until 1995.

Issuing annual performance data means that "we're going to be in a position to show how money makes a difference, and be able to show improved student achievement," Schilling said.

"They'll spend the money when we know we're going to get results," said John C. Sprague, vice president of the state school board.

The report showed that overall, the state's public schools failed to meet the performance standard on all four basic competency tests, which students take for the first time in ninth grade: reading, writing, mathematics and citizenship.

The reading and mathematics tests are the equivalent of about the eighth-grade level, according to an education department spokesman. Students eventually must pass those tests in order to graduate.

The schools also failed to meet the standards for seventh-through-12th-grade attendance and for high school dropouts.

Maryland schools met the minimum standard in only two categories: attendance in the grades first through sixth, and promoting students in grades first through sixth. But the state failed to make a grade of "excellent" in any of the eight categories.

The report set various yardsticks for measuring performance in the eight different categories. For example, a school district was rated "satisfactory" on the reading test if 95 percent of its ninth-graders passed the first time, and "excellent" if 97 percent of them passed. By contrast, the "satisfactory" pass rate for the mathematics test was 80 percent, while 90 percent brought an "excellent" rating.

The report for the first time bundles performance data on the state's public school system as a whole and for each of Maryland's 24 school jurisdictions.

School performance varied widely by jurisdiction. Baltimore failed to make a satisfactory grade in any of the eight categories, for example, while Howard County missed only on its attendance rate for first through sixth grades.

"There are school systems that have a lot of progress to make in each of those areas," conceded Shilling.

But state officials also insisted that the report is simply the "benchmark" for an ambitious five-year school performance program through 1995 and is not intended to rank the relative quality of different school districts.

"There are no grades, no rankings, no comparisons," said Shilling. "We did not expect the state or school systems to meet our standards... the first year or the second year."

Instead, school systems will be judged on the amount of improvement they make in coming years, as the annual report grows more detailed.

Next year, for example, the report will contain data on individual schools, in addition to system-wide statistics. Schools are expected to tailor their educational plans to deal with the weaknesses pinpointed by the report. And by 1995, every school district in the state is supposed to score at least "satisfactory" on every aspect of the test.

Eventually, the report is expected to become part of a school accreditation program recommended by the governor's school performance commission last year.

The report holds every school district in the state to the same performance standard, despite the widely differing problems -- and resources -- in those districts.

Baltimore City, for example, posted the worst performance on the report. Howard County was among the best, missing the standard only in seventh-through-12th-grade attendance.

Baltimore, however, spends just $4,255 a student, compared with $5,549 a pupil in Howard County. And the total "wealth per pupil" -- taxable wealth of the local system in relation to enrollment -- is $101,246 in Baltimore, compared with $195,827 in Howard.

"There are some significant differences between school districts our state," said Shilling, who warned against district-to-district comparisons. "People have different types of problems that they're going to have to tackle."

He said, however, that even the poorest jurisdictions, including Baltimore City, will have to work their way toward meeting the standards, perhaps by focusing their spending on areas that need improvement.

And Walter Sondheim Jr., who headed the gubernatorial commission that sparked the performance program, argued that accountability plays a key role in the debate over education funding.

"This is the beginning of finding out . . . whether the money is distributed in a way to provide the best effects for the state," Sondheim said.

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