Middle school test successes buoy morale Defying expectations, Harper's Choice leads county in exam round

'Just hard work'

Intense approach gets credit, but some fear scores may be fluke

February 11, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

By conventional wisdom, Harper's Choice Middle School should be one of Howard County's lower-performing schools.

It's the county middle school with the highest percentage of students with limited English skills, the second-highest percentage of special education pupils and the third-highest percentage of students eligible for free lunches.

So why was Harper's Choice the only middle school in Howard to meet five of the six standards on the most recent round of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests?

Harper's Choice Principal James Evans attributes a large part of achievement to the emphasis he and teachers placed on the tests at the school last spring.

The school's PTA notified eighth-graders' parents about the importance of the tests and offered incentives for pupils to be at school during the exams -- eliminating many of the "zero" scores assigned to pupils who are absent for any of the five testing days. The PTA also provided pastries and juice in the mornings before each exam.

But that isn't the whole story.

After all, the school did nearly as well on other tests last spring -- the nationally normed Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) -- with its pupils scoring substantially higher than what was anticipated based upon the school system's measures of their cognitive skills.

Instead, two days of sitting in Harper's Choice classrooms yields some more fundamental explanations for the school's relative academic success: efficient use of school time, a strong classroom emphasis on the "critical thinking" skills on which the MSPAP tests focus, and freedom for teachers to employ a variety of instructional approaches geared to pupils' varying learning styles.

Harper's Choice teachers also say that the school's involvement in a county trial program known as MASSI (Motivation, Assessment, Support, Structure and Instruction) has helped many students. The program -- initially aimed at low-achieving black students -- gives teachers the flexibility to adapt standard lessons to pupils' needs, the school's teachers say.

"They've had the freedom to do what they believe is best for their students," said Dr. Jacqueline F. Brown, the school system's human relations coordinator who has worked closely with Harper's Choice on MASSI.

To be sure, Harper's Choice isn't a perfect school.

There are plenty of times when students can be found doodling in the back of the classroom rather than paying attention. Like almost every school in Howard, its classes are larger than teachers would prefer. The school, built in 1973 according to an open-space design, also struggles with many of the noise disturbances associated with this now out-of-fashion concept.

Nor is what's happening at Harper's Choice exclusive to the Columbia middle school. Many other Howard schools offer strong instructional programs; some boast higher scores on the CTBS exams.

But scenes from two recent days spent in Harper's Choice's classrooms and hallways offer a glimpse into what's working at a school considered by many to be an unlikely candidate for such academic success:

* Teachers tend to waste little, if any, time during the day. Instruction begins as soon as students enter the classroom. Activities during the 41-minute periods blend seamlessly into each other. Students aren't permitted to start packing up their books for the next period until the class is over.

"It's nothing magic, just hard work for the entire period," said sixth-grade math teacher Janet Cooper. "My sixth-graders know the routine: They go to the warm-up box for the drills and go back to their desks to do them. Every moment in class is so important, you don't want to waste any of it."

Students begin thinking about the MSPAP tests from the first day they walk into Harper's Choice as sixth-graders. "We hear about it all time," said eighth-grader Amanda Levin, 13. "The teachers give us exercises for it and we practice pretty often."

On the principal's schedule for quarterly activities, every page includes a section on MSPAP exercises -- also known as MSPAP "prompts" -- to be completed during those eight quarters.

"Every quarter there's another prompt for the kids, from the sixth grade on," Mr. Evans said. "Getting familiar with the test is so important to doing well. No matter how skilled the students are, they need to know how to answer the questions, too."

* When eighth-graders take the MSPAP tests each spring, portions of the tests require them to work together in groups to solve problems. As a result, Harper's Choice teachers are putting more and more group activities into their lesson plans.

Three or four pupils work together on sets of math questions or small groups haggle over life in America under the Articles of Confederation. "If you make sure the kids can work together now and are comfortable doing that, it will mean Harper's a lot at MSPAP time," said seventh-grade math teacher Roberta Girardi.

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