Students fall far short of Maryland test goals

February 17, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

All but a tiny fraction of Maryland's more than 1,000 public elementary and middle schools got failing grades on state tests designed to assess how well students apply classroom learning to real-life situations, results released yesterday show.

In only one category -- fifth-grade math -- did more than 4 percent of Maryland's schools attain a satisfactory rating. Statewide, only two schools -- which officials refused to identify -- met all standards in reading, mathematics, social studies and science.

Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick acknowledged that schools have a long way to go to meet ambitious state standards by 1996.

She said the results demonstrated the need for fundamental changes in curriculum and teaching to stress more critical thinking and less rote memory.

State school officials deliberately set high standards to force long-term school reform, she said.

"These assessments . . . require major changes in the way our teachers are teaching and the way our students are learning," she said after releasing results of the tests, which were given last May to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

"This is not a failure story. This is a story of the education community coming together setting high standards for students, looking forward."

But, as they have since before their inception in 1991, the tests drew criticism yesterday.

Critics, including some parents, call the tests unproven yardsticks that set arbitrary standards, change continually and unfairly assess skills teachers have not been trained to teach. "It's testing what hasn't been taught, like giving my Latin class a test in Greek," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, a 44,000-member union.

Like other critics, he suggested that reform depends not only on tests, but on better training of teachers, more money for poorer districts and more consensus about goals and teaching strategies before testing.

Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the tests could lead to despair and a sense of hopelessness. "What it does is just make the teachers and the kids feel like, 'What's the use? We'll never be able to do anything.' It's ridiculous."

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state school board, called that view misguided.

"People think this is to punish schools by identifying them," he said. "It's not. It's meant to save schools to give children a better education."

Meanwhile, the state acknowledged some problems with the tests. Flaws in some of the 1993 tests, procedural snags and changes in the way the state released results made comparisons to the previous year's results impossible. The state also threw out statewide results of the third-grade reading and the eighth-grade science tests because of concerns about flawed questions.

The nine-hour battery of "criterion-referenced tests" assesses proficiency in reading, mathematics, social studies and science. The tests are the linchpin of a state school reform effort meant to resuscitate failing schools and make good ones better. The tests differ radically from the more traditional, standardized ones. They replace multiple-choice questions with "tasks" requiring students to do such things as write essays, draw graphs, conduct experiments and work in groups to solve problems.

In 1995, the scores will take on much more significance. They will be used, along with other factors such as student attendance, to help identify elementary and middle schools targeted for possible takeover by the state.

On last year's third-grade tests, no more than 20 -- about 3 percent -- of the 782 schools received "satisfactory" ratings on any of the math, science or social studies tests.

In the fifth grade, 1 percent of 773 schools met the standard in reading, 2 percent in social studies, 4 percent in science, 9 percent in math and 2 percent in social studies.

In the eighth grade, of 230 schools tested, none met the state standard for reading and social studies, and 2 percent met the math standard.

For the first time this year, the state released results based on the number of schools meeting state standards adopted by the state Board of Education last November. Last year, the state released only the percentage of students at each level.

For a school to meet the state standard, at least 70 percent of its students must score at least level 3 in achievement ratings that range from level 1, the highest, to level 5, the lowest.

Results released yesterday also list the number of schools "approaching" the state standard -- meaning 50 percent to 69 percent of the school's students performed satisfactorily.

The criterion-referenced tests replaced the more traditional California Achievement Test, which measured students against a norm" set by an arbitrary group of students.

The new tests were developed at a cost of $1.7 million with CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, based on the advice of more than 200 Maryland teachers. They cost about $2.5 million each year to administer.

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