Md. 4th-graders rank 27th among 39 states in reading skills test

April 28, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Maryland public school fourth-graders ranked 27th among their counterparts in 39 states in reading skills in an extensive national survey -- just behind Kentucky and just ahead of Arkansas, two states that spend thousands of dollars less per pupil.

The news was not much better elsewhere: No state reached average scores indicating more than a basic proficiency in reading.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education said they were startled by the national results of the report, which also showed a decline in the reading abilities of American high school seniors nationally between 1992 and 1994.

Ten states showed statistically significant declines in the proficiency of fourth-graders since 1992: Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

Notes of alarm punctured the measured phrases of statistical analysis yesterday during the news conference at which figures from the survey were released. A more detailed report, which has not been distributed to state education departments or school districts, will be issued in September.

"We need to take this as a warning . . . almost to the point of a whack on the head," said William T. Randall, Colorado's education commissioner, who headed the federally appointed panel that oversees the exam.

The tests are considered the best comparison of Maryland students to their counterparts in other states.

Maryland school officials said they were concerned by the findings for the state and the nation, which they said confirmed recent results of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, a similarly comprehensive exam. (That test showed 30.6 percent of Maryland fourth-graders meeting state standards reading.)

"We fully expect our students to perform on a much higher achievement level," said Mark Moody, an assistant state schools superintendent.

But they largely dismissed Maryland's position behind most other mid-Atlantic states. Dr. Moody said the difference was statistically insignificant between Maryland, which had an average of 211 of a possible 500 points for fourth-graders, and Pennsylvania, which had 216. Nationally, the average was 213.

The survey, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), measured the progress of a sample of more than 27,400 students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades in 39 states and Guam. Washington, D.C., took part in the test but did not release its data.

Emerson J. Elliott, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said he was surprised by the national drop because other trends indicated a move toward more rigorous education -- in course selection, in Scholastic Assessment Tests and in the NAEP tests for mathematics and science released in 1992.

But the snapshots showing decline in reading levels since 1992 appear nearly universal: Whether sorted by race, geographic region, gender or grade level, most students performed worse last spring than their counterparts did two years earlier.

No state showed statistically important improvement in 1994 over 1992, according to the report. Private and public students alike showed lower scores, although private students, on average, continued to achieve higher marks.

The test is considered to be the best comparison among states: SATs are taken by a self-selecting population of college-bound high school students. Other national tests -- such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which Maryland gives but decided this week to drop -- compare students not to current performance nationally but to a sample of students who took the test when it was developed several years ago.

Only 4 percent of Maryland fourth-graders reached or exceeded the score considered advanced, 22 percent met or exceeded proficiency, and 52 percent met or exceeded basic levels of reading skills. That left 48 percent of students who did not meet basic standards.

"The emphasis on gifted and talented [students], and I used to be a big proponent, means that teachers do not hold high expectations for the average student," said Stuart Berger, superintendent of Baltimore County schools.

Dr. Moody said many of the states that scored highest were in New England and the Great Plains, where more homogenous and less urban populations indicated an absence of the concentrated regions of poverty where scores are often lowest.

Gary W. Phillips, an associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics who over sees NAEP, said the urban/suburban gap had not been determined. NAEP's samples do not yet permit reporting scores from individual school districts.

State-by-state comparisons were done only for fourth-graders. The eighth- and 12th-grade tests measured national trends.

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