Education strategy sound despite performance dip


September 06, 1998|By Mike Burns

AS WE LEARNED in the great stock market nose dive this month, reality is not a smooth curve or a straight line.

Trends may be all well and good, for as long as they continue. But they don't, and nothing keeps going at the same pace forever. Forces that push the averages up are not immune to, nor can they predict, the changes that will push the averages down (or sideways).

It's a thought worth pondering as Carroll County looks at the results of the latest SAT scores compiled by the Class of '98, as those graduates bid farewell to the public school system.

The SAT, formerly an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test, is widely used by colleges as one measure to determine admissions of high school graduates. Because of its nationwide standards, SAT scores are also viewed as a measure of how well secondary schools are teaching college-bound youth.

Six points lower

The mean score, or the middle point of all scores, of the SAT math and verbal tests for Carroll County high schoolers was 1044 -- 6 points lower than the previous year's average.

That's a decline of little more than one-half percent. It's not enough to be statistically significant, not the basis for hand-wringing or wholesale reassessment of the school system.

Like the recent results of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, the applied learning tests given in lower grades, the new Carroll SAT scores indicated a leveling off, a possible prelude to decline, in the view of some observers.

After all, the SAT averages in Carroll had demonstrably risen in each of the past three years. Those who project the future from footprints of the past had expected ever-greater achievement. (Curiously, the past three years also saw superlative performance by the U.S. stock market before its recent comeuppance.)

Reasons for 'stagnation'

Fact is, there are plenty of reasons for the SAT "stagnation," aside from the fact that things don't keep going the same way forever.

The number of students choosing to take the SAT is not the same in each graduating class. The mix of aptitude and intelligence within these classes is not the same. The capability of students who take the test can vary from year to year. The year in which a student takes the test (not always the senior year) can play a role.

Test results can be influenced by the number of participants who study how to get better scores on the SAT.

Carroll and state educators take comfort in the visible upward trend of scores over the past five years. And Carroll's mean scores for 1998 are still significantly higher than both Maryland and national averages.

The county's school system does not base its curriculum or educational pattern on the SAT (even though various books and computer programs and private tutoring centers promise to improve a student's ability to take the SAT).

At the same time, the schools -- and the public -- take the SAT results seriously. Scores are seen as one indication of how well children are learning.

More specifically, educators say they look at how their students in college preparatory courses are performing on the SAT, compared with those who don't take those courses.

In Carroll this year, the 1998 graduates scored 7 points lower in word skills than they did a year earlier. But the math scores were 1 point higher. That's not enough in itself to prompt any noticeable change in local instructional programs.

Key High: Worst to first

If meaningful improvement can be identified, it was in the scores of graduates of Francis Scott Key High School. The mean scores in the northwest Carroll school were the highest in the county, with a whopping 35-point increase over last year. Two years ago, Key graduates taking the test scored lowest among the five Carroll high schools.

Even then, there's no obvious reason why the Key scores jumped from worst to first in such a short time. School officials can't finger any changes in staff or curriculum there, although Key had the fewest number of students taking the 1998 test.

If major changes are to be made, and schools are always searching for improvement, the impetus will be from student scores on tests designed only for Maryland schools.

In this decade, MSPAP results have become an established way to assess the educational performance of individual schools in the state. Now a new battery of statewide exams will soon be required for graduation in Maryland, much more demanding than the minimal "functional" tests now used. There's where the teaching changes will be purposely shaped to the test.

But the scores won't always top the previous year's results. The tests will likely change over time. And the straight line of constant improvement will remain as elusive as ever.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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