Slowly, schools are making grade State test shows 18 of 24 districts made stronger marks

December 12, 1997|By Mary Maushard and Mike Bowler | Mary Maushard and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Howard Libit and Elaine Tassy contributed to this article.

Maryland's public school students continue to show improvement on statewide tests, but their annual gains are slowing and mostly measured in baby steps.

In the state's annual report card of school progress -- released yesterday with much hoopla and the presence of the nation's highest education official -- 18 of 24 school districts improved their marks over last year.

Average scores were higher on 13 of the 17 required tests given annually to virtually all the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

Growing a little more than 1 percent from the 1996 tests, this year's statewide average showed 41.8 percent of students performing at least satisfactorily. The tests are given in reading, writing, language usage, math, science and social studies.

Officials took heart that 52 of the state's 1,018 elementary and middle schools averaged at least 70 percent satisfactory marks on all tests.

But the state's goal, which it does not appear poised to reach, is for all schools to meet or surpass the 70 percent satisfactory level within three years.

And state education officials yesterday openly worried over eighth-grade reading scores, which fell an average of 2.3 percent statewide and as much as 7 percent in some high-performing districts, such as Frederick and Howard counties.

The tests -- developed with strong input from the state's business community, and stressing writing, reasoning and collective work -- have been given for seven years, and schools have been held accountable for them since 1993. They are a key part of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), a broader effort to improve the state's public schools.

Despite false starts in the early years and continued criticism of the tests, which have come to drive instruction in elementary and middle schools this decade, the school reform program drew praise yesterday.

"If Maryland's schools were a stock or a mutual fund, that would represent a good investment. Four years of continued improvement, an excellent record," said Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chairman of the board and chief executive officer at Legg Mason and an advocate for public education.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, too, likened the 7-year-old program to an investment, saying the state was reaping dividends in better teaching, better learning and "certainly the hope of a better life for our students."

MSPAP critics weren't in evidence yesterday, but they have complained that the test measures schools -- not individual students -- and that parents have been unable to see their children's test papers.

"The tests take away from valuable class time, too," said Sharon DiBattista of Perry Hall, the mother of three. "They are just demanding more and more."

Del. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel Republican who has called MSPAP an "exercise in arrogance," said she will reintroduce legislation in the 1998 General Assembly that would replace the program with a test of basic skills sold by a commercial publisher.

The state's average reading test scores for third-graders -- considered to be a critical time by which youngsters should be reading properly -- inched up to average 36.8 percent satisfactory across the state this year. In third-grade reading, Howard and Harford counties led the state.

Over the five years that the state has been recording scores on the performance-based tests, several rural counties have made substantial progress, outrunning recent gains by suburban counties -- which tended to show more progress in MSPAP's first years.

Dorchester, Kent and St. Mary's counties have increased their average scores more than 19 percentage points since 1993, according to the state.

Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore has gone from second-lowest standing among the state's school systems, with 21.5 percent average, to a solid middle ranking this year -- with more than 40 percent of its students achieving satisfactory ratings.

"Kids are learning more, the curriculum is better, teachers are expecting more," Dorchester Superintendent Spicer Bell said.

For the fifth straight year, Howard County maintained its first-place ranking with almost 58 percent of its students scoring satisfactorily on all tests.

Baltimore County's performance jumped more than 3 percentage points, after leveling off last year, bringing it from 13th to eighth place statewide.

Baltimore City schools continued to have the worst performance in the state, showing only enough improvement to bring the school system to its 1995 level, after a dip last year.

Only 13.8 percent of city students scored at a satisfactory level or above this year.

Some state officials complained privately yesterday that the city scores pulled down the statewide average, noting that this year's statewide average of 41.8 percent would have risen almost five points to 46 percent -- rather than just 1.1 points -- without the city's performance.

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