State gave city a break Performance: All the flap from city officials can't cover up the fact that scores of city school students on statewide tests continue to decline.

The Education Beat

February 09, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CITY OFFICIALS complained loudly a few days ago when the state Education Department added 10 more Baltimore schools to the "reconstitution-eligible" list, as though the political turmoil surrounding the system somehow excused mediocrity in the classroom.

"It almost seems mean-spirited," said city Superintendent Walter Amprey after state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced the 1996 failures.

But the real story is just the opposite: The city generally did so poorly on MSPAP last year that state officials were kind-spirited: They lowered the bar of eligibility for the failing schools list and were sensitive enough not to embarrass Baltimore further by announcing they'd done it.

Two years ago, 35 faltering city schools were declared failures, and each had to spend much of last year writing an individual reform plan that would meet state approval. Had the same criteria been used in 1996, at least another 35 schools, all of them in Baltimore, would have been declared eligible for state intervention.

In short, the state cut the city some slack, 25 schools worth of it.

The formula used in compiling the list is complicated, but it boils down to this: Schools that are bad and getting worse are cited.

An independent analysis of metropolitan area MSPAP scores in the core skills of reading, writing and math by Michael J. Himowitz, The Sun's electronic news editor, confirms the

dreadful MSPAP performance by city schools last year.

One would expect the majority of schools to improve on MSPAP between 1995 and 1996, and, indeed, about two-thirds of the 369 metropolitan area elementary schools did show gains in the third and fifth grades.

The list compiled by The Sun starts with the schools that gained the most over the two years and runs through the schools that declined the most. Four of the top six, Meade Heights, Glen Burnie Park, Ridgeway and Rolling Knolls, are in Anne Arundel County.

In fact, 59 of Arundel's 76 elementary schools improved their scores between 1995 and 1996. But scores at 63 of 109 city schools declined, a few of them precipitously.

The Sun is able to do with the MSPAP data what state officials once did but won't do publicly today because they are under pressure from superintendents and school boards not to draw comparisons among schools and districts. Earlier, using the state's data, The Sun compiled a metropolitan ranking of schools on the '95 MSPAP, along with demographic information.

This kind of ranking shows the strong relationship between wealth and achievement that researchers have been documenting for four decades. Only a handful of the top 70 schools have more than 15 percent of students eligible for free lunches. And almost all of the low-performing schools are mired in poverty. So clearly do MSPAP results demonstrate this relationship that critics wonder why a simpler and less expensive test wouldn't do just as well -- and take less time from regular instruction.

The year-to-year comparison is of greater interest because it shows progress -- or lack of it. Some of the high-performing schools in 1995 declined last year, but others improved. So praise is in order for Thomas G. Hayes, Thomas Johnson, Hampstead Hill, Arundel and Lafayette elementaries in the city, all of which improved from 1995 to 1996 against the economic odds.

Meanwhile, look for at least one of the city schools put on the failing list this year to refuse to comply with MSPAP rules. Education Beat hears this school will refuse to devise its own reform, instead challenging the state to take it over or turn it over to a private contractor.

If you have access to the World Wide Web, you can find MSPAP elementary and middle school scores on SunSpot. Point your browser to http: // www.sunspot.net/sun/schools/.

Schools get low marks from teen-agers in poll

Public Agenda, a respected nonpartisan public opinion research and education organization, last week came out with a report on what American teen-agers think about school. It's a downer. Among other findings in the report, titled "Getting By":

Most youngsters see little reason to study academic subjects such as history, science and literature. They view most of what they learn -- apart from the "basics" -- as tedious and irrelevant.

Most admit readily that they don't work very hard in school. Half the teens in public schools say their schools aren't challenging enough and that higher standards would make them do more.

Most teen-agers say the close and unwavering attention of teachers, even more than higher standards, is the real key to getting them to learn more.

African-American and Hispanic teen-agers support higher standards for all youngsters but are more critical of their schools. Black youngsters, in particular, believe in the benefits of education and academic accomplishment.

Private school teen-agers like their schools and teachers better than public school teens. Only 13 percent of public school students, vs. 43 percent of private school teens, say classmates are "very respectful" of teachers.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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