Baltimore County narrows reading gap of black, white pupils

Unexpected side benefit of system's emphasis on improving instruction

August 19, 1999|By Howard Libit and Lynn Anderson | Howard Libit and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's effort to improve reading instruction appears to be paying dividends in an area that has confounded schools for decades: lagging minority achievement.

In just three years, the achievement gap between black students and white students in early reading skills has been cut in half -- a hopeful sign to county and state educators.

"If we can sustain this and keep the growth going, then we can achieve success for all students," said Richard J. Steinke, state deputy superintendent for school improvement.

"It's a sign that if it can be done in one place, in one school system, then it can be done anywhere."

In spring 1997, only 58 percent of county first-grade black boys were reading at grade level, compared with 84 percent of white first-grade boys.

But by this spring, black first-grade boys had gained 20 percentage points, improving to 78 percent reading at grade level.

While white first-grade boys also improved, to 89 percent reading on grade level, the gap between the two groups had decreased -- from 26 percentage points in 1997 to 11 percentage points this year.

The racial gap in reading performance for female first-graders -- as well as for both male and female second-graders -- also decreased, though not quite as dramatically as for first-grade boys.

"They are going in the right direction," said Samuel C. Stringfield, a research scientist and testing expert with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools and a city school board member.

County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione credited teachers' work with under-performing students for narrowing the achievement gap, against which the county has been struggling for years.

When he became superintendent in 1996, Marchione pushed for all elementary schools to adopt a phonics-intensive early reading program known as "word identification."

He also started testing the reading skills of children in the fall and spring of kindergarten, first grade and second grade, which teachers say helps them identify which students are behind.

"If you provide quality instruction and focus on individual needs, you will have every student make progress," Marchione said.

"If you have effective teaching day in and day out, it will produce better achievement scores."

The gains come as educators in Baltimore County and the entire state work to find ways to reduce a persistent achievement gap between black students and white students.

For example, Baltimore County educators are spending $500,000 this year on the first batch of recommendations from a county task force on minority achievement, including giving more help in reading and math for elementary school students, particularly minorities.

The task force is expected to draft more long-term recommendations for future school years.

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