City elementary schools show modest gains on national test

But scores show pupils lag behind peers in reading

January 06, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's elementary school pupils scored slightly better this fall on a national standardized test -- although once again the results showed pupils reading at levels more than a year behind their peers nationally by fifth grade.

School officials downplayed the California Diagnostic Test (CDT) results, saying they show children at about the same level as last year. Improvements were small, they said.

The test is designed primarily to help teachers understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual children, not to assess how much pupils learned in a year, as many standardized tests do, said Zelda Holcomb, chief of testing for the schools.

"Everyone wants to make a lot about these changes," Holcomb said. "I would be cautiously optimistic. The bottom line is that the performance looks very similar."

The results are somewhat encouraging, she said. Children entering second grade this fall ranked in the 22nd percentile for math nationwide -- in other words, 78 percent of second graders across the nation scored better than Baltimore's pupils. That was an improvement over the scores in the fall 1997, when Baltimore ranked in the 17th percentile.

At every grade level in math and reading, the scores remained the same or improved several percentage points.

Although the increases are small, they are statistically significant, said William Schafer, director of student achievement for the Maryland State Department of Education, because a large number -- about 8,000 children -- took the test at each grade level. "But whether they are meaningful is something people might interpret differently," he said.

Will gains continue?

"Will the gains we have seen continue into the future? We won't know until that happens. If they make a two- or three-point gain year after year it would become impressive."

The scores at most schools remained constant. City Springs Elementary School was one exception. The school began to see the first signs that Direct Instruction, a program begun several years ago that emphasizes phonics, might improve student achievement.

First-graders this year are far better prepared to begin learning to read than last year's first graders were -- a result of working with kindergartners on language and reading skills, according to Principal Bernice Welchel.

"We were really amazed about what our kindergartners had done," she said.

The fall test is important because it will be the baseline for judging how far pupils have come by spring, when a second test will be given.

Holcomb said the school system is going to re-examine its testing program. All city elementary pupils are given the national standardized California Diagnostic Test in the fall and the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) in the spring. The fall test is a diagnostic test while the spring test is designed to measure achievement.

In addition, each spring third, fifth- and eighth-graders are given a state test -- the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- designed to assess school performance rather than individual achievement.

Testing concerns

In its blueprint for school reform, the school board has promised higher scores on the California test given in the spring.

Holcomb said concerns exist about whether the school system should give the fall CDT test and whether there may be too much testing. She said school officials will be asking, "Do the teachers feel it is helpful? Is it really giving us what we need?"

Other Maryland school systems give only the CTBS to second- and fourth-graders each spring.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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