Test bar set high for city schools

Board identifies goals for state exams in reading, math

Unrealistic, some say

Half of children in elementary grades expected to pass in '02

July 15, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Setting ambitious goals to boost student achievement, Baltimore's school board expects nearly half the city's elementary schoolchildren to pass statewide math and reading tests by 2002.

But the goals are so high, testing experts say, that they are unrealistic.

To meet the goals, schools would have to increase by 10 percent each year the number of pupils who can score satisfactorily at each grade level and in each subject.

For example, in the spring of 1998, 16.6 percent of Baltimore's third-graders passed the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading test.

But by 2002, 46.6 percent of third-graders would pass the MSPAP if the school system meets the target. While that pass rate is average for the state, it is far better than city pupils have ever done.

Also, 6.7 percent of the city schools' eighth-graders passed the MSPAP reading test. By 2002, 36.7 percent would be expected to pass.

"We must set our goals high enough that students will stretch to reach them," said Robert Booker, the city schools' chief executive officer, after the school board voted on the targets late Tuesday. "By setting expectations higher I think we will see substantial progress."

The school board voted to set high goals for all students, from elementary through high school, as measured by state and national standardized tests.

The goals are written into the school board's so-called master plan -- the blueprint for school reform written last year and revised this week. The plan also calls for the school system to increase the percentage of state-certified teachers it employs and to increase the percentage of special education students who receive their schooling in regular classrooms.

"It is laudable to have high aspirations, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from having them," said Steven Ferrara, a specialist in test development and research at the American Institutes for Research in Washington. "But would I expect Baltimore or any other urban school system to achieve these goals? No, I don't think it is realistic."

Ferrara, a former director of assessment at the State Board of Education, said such a climb is possible. Some county school systems, such as Howard and Harford, have increased their test scores significantly during the past four years. In Harford County, third-grade reading scores rose from a 39.9 percent pass rate to a 57.8 percent pass rate from 1994 to 1998. School systems have not, however, achieved such high increases in every grade level and subject.

And, Ferrara said, those school districts that have seen large increases are smaller and have more students from middle-income families that have more resources to prepare their children to learn to read.

"It takes a mammoth effort to organize the resources and provide all of the training of teachers and change everyone's beliefs about what they can expect out of kids," he said. Such gains cannot be expected too quickly, but after a sustained effort over many years, he said.

Baltimore school officials say they have begun such an effort in the past two years. In elementary schools, they have lowered class size, purchased new reading and math textbooks and retrained teachers to use phonics in teaching children to read. The school system has fired teachers and demoted principals in unprecedented numbers. It also has focused on recruiting qualified young teachers and principals outside the city.

Dan Koretz, a senior social scientist at RAND Education Corp. in Washington, predicted that test scores might indeed rise under such pressure to perform, but questioned whether the rise will represent meaningful gains in children's knowledge. He said teachers who are given unrealistic goals begin teaching students only what they believe will be on the test. "You can't set any arbitrary target you want and then expect people to meet it," he said. He compared it with asking a seventh-grade track team to run a 3 1/2-minute mile.

If test scores climb, Baltimore would capture the spotlight as Sacramento, Calif., did last month. Using the same reading program Baltimore adopted last year, Sacramento's first-graders' scores rose from the 35th percentile two years ago to the 62nd percentile this year.

Sam Stringfield, a new Baltimore school board member and a Johns Hopkins University education researcher, supports the goals. However, he said, "I believe some schools will meet them. It is not clear that all will, but if we don't have ambition, what are we?"

If nothing else, school officials believe that by setting percentage goals for each grade in each school, they are clearing up confusion over the standards.

The school board had previously set goals, but schools had to use a complicated formula to calculate what they should be. The formula was to calculate the number of months of instruction that had taken place that year and add that to one-quarter of the difference between the students' average score and the national or state standard.

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