Thousands of Baltimore's elementary students gleaned only a few months of learning from 180 days in city classrooms last year, according to results of a critical twice-a-year reading and math test the school board will use to evaluate everything from student progress to teacher and principal performance.
The poor showings were a disappointment -- if not a total surprise -- to school board members, who are in their second year of major reform efforts and had hoped to see more signs of improvement.
"I hope there is not anyone out there that can't agree we have got to work harder," said school board President Tyson Tildon after seeing the scores for the first time at last night's board meeting.
Fourth- and fifth-graders made only three months' progress in reading on average according to the tests, which measure fall-to-spring gains in month-by-month increments. Second-graders -- who began the 1997-1998 school year just below grade-level -- only gained two months by spring and are a year behind their peers nationally.
First and third grades were an exception: Children in both grades boosted their reading scores by eight months. But even they -- like children in second, fourth and fifth grades -- lag far behind the national averages for children their age. Baltimore's elementary students scored at best in the bottom third of the nation's students -- between the 16th and 30th percentiles.
In math, gains were similarly small, but slightly better; city students scored between the 19th and 33rd percentile nationally.
Some experts say the Baltimore scores reflect a national trend in urban districts, where deep poverty often hobbles student progress. But within the district-wide numbers are individual schools that belie that trend.
Beating the odds
Pimlico Elementary is among the poorest in the city, yet its children achieved significantly more than children in other schools. The same can be said for Carter G. Woodson and the Barclay School -- which use the curriculum of the private Calvert School -- and several others.
The challenge for board members -- who have stated their desire to make poverty irrelevant to student achievement -- will be to discover and replicate those schools' secrets, to ensure that every child in the city gains nine months of learning from nine months in class.
Some of the bright spots among the city's scores were predictable. Roland Park, Mount Washington and Woodhome elementaries -- which have lower poverty levels than other city schools -- all out-performed the city average at most grade levels. Two new schools -- one run by a parent group in Bolton Hill and a second by a church -- also did better than average, despite high poverty rates.
One puzzler among the scores was the performance of schools that participate in high-profile reform programs.
Schools which have been using the Open Court Co. textbook series, Collections for Young Scholars, before it was adopted city-wide this fall showed no more gains than the average city schools. The same was true for six schools that put Direct Instruction in place two years ago. The highly scripted program has a phonics-rich curriculum.
Muriel Berkeley, director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project which assists 15 of the 18 city schools in Direct Instruction, said she was not surprised or discouraged by the scores. She said she would not expect any significant gains for at least another year.
Gary Thrift, the administrator in charge of the Direct Instruction schools, said so many students transfer in and out of the schools that the test scores may not be representative of how students who have been in the program for a full two years scored.
One research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University saw positive trends in the test results. While the scores are low, said Sam Stringfield, the percentiles are going up. For instance, in third grade, students were in the 17th percentile in the fall and the 29th percentile in the spring. So compared with their peers nationwide, they had progressed further by the end of the year, he said.
"I would take some pleasure in that if you look at the gains, they are up," he said. "I think the board has something to feel good about."
In general, teachers and principals say privately that they believe it will take five years before new textbooks, curricula and smaller class sizes will translate into gains in scores. Too often, they say, the city has swung from one new quick-fix program to the next, never giving a program long enough to take hold.
In addition, some school officials believe that with a more detailed analysis some trends may become apparent. While, on average, schools that used Open Court did not score any better than other schools in the city, several of the individual schools using Open Court did well.