Calif. tests to assess Baltimore students Three annual exams will be benchmarks to track school revisions

September 16, 1997|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore public schools are taking a snapshot of student performance levels this week, the first of three annual assessments that ultimately will measure the success -- or failure -- of the ambitious city schools reorganization.

Students in first through fifth grades will take the California Diagnostic Tests in reading and math during the next week and a half, generating reams of data about how much they know and don't know, and setting benchmarks from which progress will be assessed.

School officials chose the California tests because they believe the exams will give them a clear picture of student performance.

For the first time in years, city parents will get individual reports before the end of the school year that detail whether their children are performing at grade level. Teachers will have an accurate sense of which children are most in need of help before it's too late to change lesson plans. Principals will know how they need to align school curricula to address weak spots in academic performance.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, taken by all third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students in the state, do not provide individual results.

"This is part of my whole thrust to make people in this district understand accountability," said interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller. "People need to look upon test-taking as just another regular episode of learning, and it's an important episode. This is how we will measure where we are, and it's what we'll look back to at the end of the year to see how far we've come. We're not really used to that kind of thing in this district yet, but this is part of changing that."

The tests will appear in the city's 100-plus elementary schools on varying schedules this week and next, and results are due in mid-October. A random sample of elementary students will be retested in December and all students will be retested at the end of the school year to assess progress.

Schiller said he expects the tests to provide important data, but he is also hoping for ancillary benefits.

"We are getting parents involved by giving them an early look at how their children are learning," he said. "We are getting students more comfortable with the idea that taking tests is a part of life, and we are getting school staff accustomed to the idea of accountability. So we are accomplishing quite a bit with this move."

The assessment program is one of more than 30 new initiatives that should appear in city schools before year's end. Smaller class sizes, specialized teacher training and a renewed emphasis on reading in the early grades highlight the list of planned reforms. The assessments are viewed by board members and Schiller as the way to keep track of what is working and what is not.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marcia Brown said she favors the assessment program as a way to give teachers a powerful tool with which to guide changes in the classroom.

She warned, though, that any attempt to use midyear or end-of-year results to evaluate teachers would be seen as an affront. Negotiations for a teacher contract have stalled over the issue of using student test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

"I think it's just common sense to want to assess students, but there's no evidence that tying teacher evaluations to test scores raises student achievement," Brown said. "That's not the purpose of this, as I understand it."

City principals are preparing their students and staff for the tests, and look forward to tweaking their instructional approaches according to the results. Some schools will take practice tests the first few days before the real exams. Others began actual testing yesterday.

Christine Johnson, principal at Rosemont Elementary in West Baltimore, said the tests make perfect sense to her.

"I don't think this is all that unusual for the kids, even the really little ones," Johnson said. "It's just like being a doctor. If we can catch their deficiencies early, then we can develop some intervention strategies before they get to later grades. We need to be diagnostic and prescriptive, and this helps us get there."

Pub Date: 9/16/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.