Howard fares well in state test scores But educators see room for improvement

June 14, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

More than half of Howard County students are getting good marks on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, but African-American students lag behind their counterparts.

More than half of all students in third, fifth and eighth grades who took the test scored in the top three levels of the math, social studies and science subjects. More than 40 percent of them scored in that range in the reading section.

Scoring in the top three levels is considered good by state school officials, who by summer are expected to finish setting a standard of performance to rank students.

The assessment test measures students' abilities, such as understanding a concept and applying it to a real-life situation. In the science portion, for example, students may have to test pH levels and relate their findings to models.

A change in test format has made it impossible for school officials to compare results with a 1991 version. Social studies and science subjects have been added, and the reading portion has gotten tougher and may not reflect students' grade level, according to Leslie Walker-Bartnick, schools' testing supervisor.

Most students seem to have attained a level where they can estimate to construct a figure of a given shape with a given area; determine the probability of a given event and explain the process used; conduct a survey to obtain data; and evaluate and simplify algebraic expressions.

School officials are tentatively pleased with the results, but they say there is room for improvement.

"We still have work to do," said Ms. Walker-Bartnick. "That's for sure."

African-American students lagged behind in every area.

In reading, for example, an average of 22 percent of African-American students scored in the top three levels, compared to an average of 50 percent of Asian and 44 percent of white students who did the same.

In math, an average of 46 percent of African-American students scored in the top three levels, compared with an average of 63 percent of Asian and white students who did the same.

While school officials had no answer for the performance gap, Ms. Walker-Bartnick had a possible theory that encompasses students of all races: Poor reading or writing skills may be the reason students get low marks.

"This is a very standardized form of performance assessment," she said. "Kids still have to read the entire test, and they have to write out the answers. They might know a lot about social studies, math or science, but if they have a weakness in reading, or if they haven't accomplished their writing yet, they're not going to do that well."

The test, which was first administered in 1991, has changed the way teachers deliver lessons. "This test has changed instruction for children every day in the classroom and has caused a lot of good things," Ms. Walker-Bartnick said.

Schools are giving students more writing exercises, and students are becoming more able to criticize their own writing.

"Standards are going home to parents so they know what we're looking for in writing," Ms. Walker-Bartnick said. "There's also more consistency now in what students are expected to know."

Teachers have been integrating their lessons with test material, and the change is remarkable, she said.

"Teachers are saying the students are doing better," said Ms. Walker-Bartnick. "They're seeing a difference as these changes are made."

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