Gains slight in city school reading tests

Grades 1 and 2 rise but 3, 4 and 5 falter in basic skills testing

`A long way to go'

Reading reform effort completes first year

math changes to begin

August 25, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The efforts of the Baltimore public schools to reform reading instruction have produced modest gains in test scores for first- and second-graders during the past year, but the majority of the city's children are still reading far below the national average.

According to results of standardized tests given this spring and released yesterday, 45 percent of first-graders read at or above grade level, compared with 40 percent the previous spring. Second-graders improved from 36 percent to 38 percent.

City school officials said yesterday that they were encouraged by the results of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

"We are not going to turn a system around in two or three years," said Robert Booker, chief executive officer of Baltimore schools. But he added: "We've reversed the trend of schools failing the children."

In contrast to the first- and second-graders, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade reading scores and math scores in all elementary grades remained unchanged or dipped slightly. In fact, third-grade reading scores declined at more than half of the city's elementary schools.

The performance is seen by experts outside the system as modest progress, the kind that might be expected at the start of reading reform. "While we want to commend the progress they have made, we certainly know they need to ratchet up the effort," said State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

For two years, educators have sought to reform Baltimore's troubled public school system, focusing much of their efforts and new money from the state on improving reading in the lower grades. The school board cut class size to 22 pupils in first through third grades, instituted a new phonics-based reading program in elementary schools and retrained many of its elementary teachers. School officials attributed the increase in scores to those efforts.

Reform measures in math instruction will begin this year with new textbooks and a plan to retrain math teachers.

Sam Stringfield, a city school board member and an educational researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, said the reading gains in the early grades, while small, are educationally significant.

"We know we have a long way to go," Stringfield said. "We shouldn't get terribly discouraged or terribly excited along the road."

School officials said they were heartened by the fact that 72 of 111 elementary schools showed improvement in first-grade reading scores.

Poor areas share success

Some of the best scores overall came from some schools in the city's poorer neighborhoods, as well as from the perennial high performers such as Roland Park, Woodholme and Mount Washington.

Thomas Johnson Elementary School in South Baltimore showed the most dramatic improvement, increasing its reading scores in every grade and its math scores in all but one grade. Principal Tom Bowmann said yesterday that his teachers and staff had celebrated the victory earlier in the week. "It can be done," he said.

At Thomas Johnson, only 37 percent of the children were reading at the national average in the spring of 1998. By this spring, 67 percent were at or above the national average.

"We are ecstatic," Bowmann said.

While the new reading program helped increase scores, he said, much of the change can be attributed to the change in attitude toward reading. The Orioles promised to treat every pupil in the school to an Orioles game if they collectively read 8,000 books. With that incentive, pupils read some 11,000 books and in the process changed their feelings about reading for fun.

Bowmann said parents played an important part in the improvement by reading to their children.

Other schools that were high scorers in reading in the early grades included Hampden, Barclay and Cecil. And first-graders at Pimlico Elementary School, which draws children from a high-poverty area, had test scores equal to those at Mount Washington.

Lyndhurst Elementary's scores for first-graders soared nearly 20 points to the national average.

School officials said they had not yet analyzed the scores to see whether schools that had used a particular method for improvement did better than the average. But it appeared that schools that had used Direct Instruction -- a highly scripted, phonics-based program -- for several years had improved their scores above the systemwide average.

New schools slip

Scores declined at three new schools run by groups outside the public school system. Scores at Midtown Academy, operated by parents, and New Song Academy, run by a church of the same name, were down slightly, although still above the city average in most grades. At Callaway Elementary, which until this summer was run by a nonprofit group formed by Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, reading and math scores dropped in every grade.

The overall results did not have school officials or educational experts applauding, but several said the public should recognize that it may take three to five years to see the effects of educational reforms.

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