Pupils lose ground in city schools The longer children stay in the system, more they fall behind

District-wide test results

Reading performance lags below grade level more than math scores

November 12, 1997|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

The longer children attend Baltimore's elementary schools, the further they fall behind their peers nationwide, according to results of the first math and reading tests given two months ago that will be used to measure the progress of city school reform efforts.

Baltimore's first-graders arrive at school with skills only a few months behind those of most children across the country, according to the California Diagnostic tests in reading and math.

But by fifth grade, they are as much as 1 1/2 years behind -- reading at about a third-grade level and performing math at about a fourth-grade level.

"I think the figures speak for themselves," said Zelda Holcomb, the district's research, evaluation and accountability officer.

"It's not surprising to me that there is an average below grade level. The purpose was to get some baseline data to begin to measure progress."

The district's reading scores were particularly startling.

Overall, 74 percent of the students in the system performed below the grade they are in, 5 percent were on target and 21 percent were above their grade.

One bright spot in the data was in the math scores.

Students in the first grade were five months behind the national average and fifth-graders were only nine months behind. By comparison, those same fifth-graders were 1 1/2 years behind in reading.

City school administrators are baffled by the performance of special education students on the test. At nearly every grade level, special education students scored no worse than students in regular classrooms.

"I am not sure what that means, to be perfectly honest," said Holcomb.

"Does it mean that some of the students don't need to be in special education? Does it mean that the special education services have brought them up to the level of other students? There are a lot of different analyses to be done."

The new city school board received a district-wide summary of the scores at last night's regular meeting. Schools have received their individual scores, and those will be made public this week.

The tests were administered to all city students in first through fifth grades in September as part of the new school board's ambitious $30 million plan to revive the district's schools.

In addition to boosting math and reading instruction, reducing class sizes and creating after-school academies, interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller argued for the need to take a snapshot of elementary students' reading and math skills. The test cost $1 million to administer and grade.

Individual test scores will be sent home to parents with report cards, beginning this week.

Parents will be given a number that will show at what grade level and month their child is reading and performing math.

An average first-grader should score 1.0; by the end of the school year, it would be 1.9. By the beginning of fifth grade, the average student should be at 5.0.

The overall city results will be used to determine how the city's elementary curriculum should be changed and will serve as a baseline from which progress will be measured.

A sample of students will be retested in January; all city students will be retested at the end of the school year.

The stakes are high. School officials will likely want to use progress on the tests as part of teacher and principal evaluations.

Citywide progress -- or lack of it -- could also be used by the state legislature to evaluate the new board's reform efforts. If legislators are dissatisfied with improvement, they could withhold the additional $20 million in state funds scheduled to go to city schools next year.

"This is our first look at this, and things will get better," Schiller said. "The most important thing we can do with this data is use it to identify what our children are not getting. Then we can alter our curriculum to help them."

J. Tyson Tildon, chairman of the school board, noted at the meeting last night that second-graders progressed very slowly, moving an average of only three months ahead during the year.

"It would seem to me that we would need to look at what happened during that time period," Tildon said.

School officials said last night that they will soon begin in-depth analysis of the scores to pinpoint weaknesses and to distinguish which schools have done better or worse than the city average.

Holcomb said administrators have begun to look closely at a sample of city schools' reading scores and have found at least one consistency: Children are having trouble "sounding out" words as they read and writing words they hear spoken.

This marks the first time that city school officials have had this kind of detailed data about every elementary school and student in the district.

Several principals said yesterday that they are pleased with the depth of the information and what they will be able to do with it.

At Mount Royal Elementary, Principal Frank Whorley said, "I am not discouraged. I am just going to use the information and, hopefully, wisely."

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