Howard County third-graders continued to improve their mastery of basic skills, but fifth- and eighth-graders slipped slightly on last spring's Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills.
The results of the most recent set of nationally standardized exams indicate that the statewide shift toward more instruction in problem-solving is not coming at the expense of lessons in basic skills for Howard students, school officials say.
Howard students have shown "remarkable consistency and made a lot of improvement, too," said Leslie Walker-Bartnick, the school system's supervisor of testing.
The results of last spring's CTBS were released to the Howard County school board Thursday night.
The exam assesses pupils' reading, language and mathematics skills. It's given along with an aptitude test, called the Test of Cognitive Skills. School officials compare students' performances on the skills test to how well they ought to perform based upon the test of their aptitudes.
Howard third-, fifth- and eighth-graders have taken the current edition of the CTBS for the past six years. The test was given to 11th-graders in 1995 but not last spring because the school system gives it to them only every other year.
In the six years since students began taking the CTBS, the Maryland Department of Education has directed a statewide change in instruction through the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) -- a set of exams that calls on students to do more writing, problem-solving and group work. These skills are not stressed by CTBS, which is aimed at testing basic skills.
Some have feared that the emphasis on the MSPAP would force teachers to reduce the time spent on basic skills and focus more on problem-solving skills. A statewide survey of teachers confirmed that such a shift is occurring in some classrooms, but in Howard it does not appear to have affected students' mastery of basic skills.
"I was pleased that Howard County students maintained their high performance on the CTBS while also doing well on the MSPAP," Walker-Bartnick said.
The slight declines among fifth- and eighth-graders in all three subject areas last spring are not yet significant because they're a one-year occurrence, rather than a downward trend, Walker-Bartnick said.
Among the possible explanations for the decline is last year's difficult winter, which gave teachers eight fewer days of instruction before the exams than the year before.
This year, 83 percent of Howard students performed at or above what was expected of them based upon their score on the aptitude test.
The school system is developing ways to help the 17 percent of Howard students performing below expectations to improve their scores -- including the disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic pupils whose scores lag behind those of white and Asian-American students, Walker-Bartnick said.
Among schools, Burleigh Manor Middle School was the only Howard middle school to see improved performances in all three subject areas by its eighth-graders. Most middle schools saw slight declines in at least one area.
The third-grade CTBS scores at a number of Howard elementary schools made substantial gains last spring over the previous year, including Bollman Bridge, Bryant Woods, Jeffers Hill, Running Brook, Stevens Forest, Waterloo and Worthington. The fifth-grade score at Longfellow also rose substantially in all three subject areas.
At Worthington, Principal Fran Donaldson credited a number of initiatives for the school's rising test scores, including additional training for teachers and the school's Reading Assistance Program, which brings instructional assistants and parent volunteers into first- and second-grade classrooms to work with and read to small groups of students.
"The one-on-one and small-group work is critical to helping every student become a fluent reader by the end of second grade, which is our goal," Donaldson said.
This year was the last time the current edition of the CTBS will be taken by Howard students.
State education officials have chosen a new version of the CTBS that Howard schools will give to second-, fourth-, sixth- and ninth-graders this spring. The grades in which the CTBS will be given were changed by the state because the MSPAP is given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, and teachers have complained that testing takes up too much time in those grades.
Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills
CTBS was administered statewide last spring. Scores are percentile rankings against a national sample in which average students scored 50. Here's a school-by-school list for Howard County, excluding high schools, whose students did not take the test:
Reading Language Math
Elementary schools '95 '96 '95 '96 '95 '96
Atholton, 3rd grade 70* 78 78 73 89 88
Atholton, 5th grade 71 75 71 74 76 82
Bollman Bridge, 3rd grade 60 67 57 64 56 73
Bollman Bridge, 5th grade 69 64 73 70 73 72
Bryant Woods, 3rd grade 56 67 41 67 64 67
Bryant Woods, 5th grade 74 71 69 72 83 87