City scores show reforms need time, school officials say Average results disappointing, but some gains are noted

September 10, 1998|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

At first glance, the most recent test scores from Baltimore's elementary schools look like the vital signs of a patient in intensive care.

Thousands of the city's public school students progressed only a few months in their 180 days, and many schools seemed to slump in the second grade.

The results for some grades so depressed school board President J. Tyson Tildon that he remarked: "I want to cry."

But take a closer look, some experts said yesterday, and the patient's vital signs may not be critical. The medicine -- the most recent reforms at schools this fall -- have not had time to take effect. And, the long-term prognosis is far from clear.

"I always used to shudder when the board would talk about great change, and in reality, all we were doing was stabilizing the patient," said Robert E. Schiller, the system's interim schools chief who shepherded the school system through its initial year of reform.

Schiller, who has returned to Florida, said yesterday he wouldn't expect to see much change in test scores because only a few reforms started last fall.

"If we're having this conversation a year from now, I'd be really worried," he said.

City schools released the results of standardized tests yesterday given in the fall and the spring which showed the average student fell far below his peers across the nation.

First-graders, while gaining eight months of learning in nine months, still were growing far more slowly than most first-graders nationwide. By fifth grade, students were reading at a third-grade level. Math results were slightly better but not significantly.

Beyond those system-wide scores were some interesting sidelights.

Of the schools that ranked in the top 20, six had been put on a list of failing schools by the state, said Zelda Holcomb, chief of assessment in the city schools. "We should look at those schools and find out what they are doing and account for that achievement," she said.

Two of those schools are Barclay Elementary and Carter G. Woodson Elementary, which made significant gains after using the Calvert School curriculum for several years.

Woodson first-graders, for instance, gained a year and a half in academic achievement compared with just under a year for the average city student. Compared with others nationwide, Woodson first-graders were in the 46th percentile.

Meanwhile, fifth-graders in Woodson -- students who have not had the benefit of the Calvert curriculum -- scored in the sixth percentile and appeared to lose ground between fall and spring.

Barclay students, too, showed solid gains. And a third school -- New Song Academy, which opened last fall -- is using the Calvert School curriculum and had first-graders who posted some of the highest scores in the city.

Calvert, a private school in Baltimore, has a curriculum that has been around since 1907 and stresses the basics. It tries to ensure that students master each lesson in its entirety before moving on.

"It's just a very solid program. It just works. It is being committed to the idea that every moment of the day counts, every piece of instruction counts," said Merrill Hall, headmaster of the school.

Until recently, Calvert's board of trustees had been reluctant to allow its program to be used in other city schools even though the Abell Foundation funded the project at Barclay and Woodson schools for years.

"We are very leery of being cast as a school that can correct the education problem out there," Hall said. "We are probably no better [at] running a school system of 60,000 children than anyone else."

On the other hand, he said, the school felt it could not ignore the requests of schools that asked to buy the materials. So Calvert decided this year to sell the materials and curriculum to Payne Memorial Outreach, a nonprofit group of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, which recently took over Callaway Elementary School.

Other city schools that have embarked on a similarly ambitious and back-to-basics curriculum have not seen the same success.

Six city schools where a program called Direct Instruction was implemented showed progress no better than that of other average city children. Holcomb said, however, that school officials must compare each Direct Instruction school to a city school that has students like theirs before conclusions can be drawn.

Using Calvert's teaching method should prove to school officials that staying the course may be the best policy, according to two Johns Hopkins University researchers.

"You have a relatively mature reform in those places. They know what they are doing. They have had time to implement it," said Sam Stringfield, a research scientist who has followed the Barclay and Woodson schools' progress for the eight years since Calvert's teaching method was instituted.

At Direct Instruction schools, Hall said, reformers attempt to train a staff, adjust a curriculum and put it in place all at once. Of course, he said, it will take longer.

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