Tests show advances in reading

1st- and 2nd-graders improve for 3rd year

racial gap narrows

`Headed in right direction'

Marchione credits emphasis on phonics, 1-on-1 instruction

August 19, 1999|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Test results released yesterday show a three-year, upward trend by Baltimore County first- and second-graders -- evidence, officials say, that the school system's emphasis on phonics and more one-on-one instruction in reading is paying off.

Eighty-seven percent of the county's second-grade pupils were reading at or above grade level this spring, compared with 80 percent in 1997, while 88 percent of the first-graders were reading at that level, compared with 76 percent in 1997.

The gap between black and white pupils in reading has been cut in half since 1997, the results showed.

"The strong progress we have seen over the last three years tells me that we are headed in the right direction," said Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione. "Because of initiatives like our phonics-based [reading] program, Baltimore County's boys and girls are starting their academic careers on the right foot."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly characterized Baltimore County gains in reading scores. Between spring 1997 and spring 1998, scores rose by 8 percentage points for first-graders and 6 percentage points for second-graders, compared with gains of 4 percentage points and 1 percentage point, respectively, from spring 1998 to spring of this year. The Sun regrets the error.

The gains in reading scores, however, were less impressive this year than in the previous year. Between spring 1997 and spring 1998, scores rose 8 percent for first-graders and 6 percent for second-graders, compared with a modest 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively, from spring 1998 to spring of this year.

Ronald S. Thomas, assistant to the superintendent, department of educational accountability, said yesterday that the difference reflects the fact that students still struggling to improve their reading skills are the ones who need the most intensive instruction.

"They are the hardest to move ahead," he said.

The test results come as educators here and around the country are seeking new ways to hold teachers and principals in public schools more accountable. Data over a three-year period are recognized by many experts as more significant than year-to-year results.

Kindergartners improve

The latest figures show that 82 percent of the county's kindergartners in 1997 were reading at or above grade level. Two years later, 87 percent of those children were reading at or above grade level in the second grade.

The tests -- Gates-MacGinitie for first-graders and the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills for second-graders -- are two of the most widely used measures of scholastic achievement in the nation.

The tests also measure reading skills for kindergartners as well as math skills for first- and second-graders, but the kindergarten results were not based on national, norm-referenced standardized tests.

Baltimore County pupils continued to score significantly above the national average of 77 percent at or above grade level for first and second grades.

School systems in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Harford counties are expected to release test results in the next few weeks. Howard County scores were released recently.

"Our goal is 100 percent [at or above grade level], and we're not going to stop until we get to that," said Marchione, who has been working to restore phonics to early reading instruction since he took over the nation's 25th-largest school system in 1995.

"But any increase, any upward movement, is incredible."

The superintendent praised the county's emphasis on its word-identification program, which began in the 1996-1997 school year, marking a shift from the whole-language approach that had dominated the district's reading curriculum.

The whole-language approach teaches by exposing children to literature, while word identification focuses more heavily on instruction in the letter-sound relationships known as phonics, particularly for beginning readers.

"Some teachers didn't have training in phonics," Marchione said. "They got the training, and all that hard work gives us these results."

Samuel C. Stringfield, principle research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, lauded the county's results.

"They should be congratulated both for high scores and for their gains," he said. "Two consecutive years of improvements is not easy, and we should all throw our hats off to them."

Individual gains vary

Still, parents should not read too much about their own child's progress into the test scores, said Stringfield, a member of Baltimore's school board.

"Parents have to be their own judge of their children's progress," he said. "Is the child coming home and reading enthusiastically? Is he applying schoolwork to real-life situations? Parents have every right to be quite demanding about what schools provide."

At 68 of the county's 102 elementary schools, the percentage of second-graders reading at or above grade level increased from spring 1998 to this spring. That was comparable to the improvement seen between 1997 and 1998.

Some schools saw significant gains. Reading scores for second-graders at Deer Park Elementary School, for instance, rose from 83 percent to 93 percent of students at or above grade level, while the percentage for second-graders at Winand Elementary increased from 83 percent to 89 percent.

However, Middlesex Elementary saw its scores for second-graders drop from 85 percent to 77 percent reading at grade level, while Bedford Elementary experienced a drop from 90 percent to 65 percent.

"For years, our scores have been improving and improving," said Bedford Assistant Principal Diane Richmond, who is new to the school this year. "We want to find the root cause [of poor scores] so we can develop strategies to focus on individual student needs."

Marchione said meetings will be set up between school principals and area superintendents to discuss what went wrong at the schools that saw declines.

Often, a downward blip in test scores can be caused by unexpected teacher turnover or a high rate of student transfers, officials said.

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