City pupils' test scores surge

School reform effort shows first definitive signs of progress

`The most fantastic news'

Phonics emphasis, new books pay off for schoolchildren

May 17, 2000|By Liz Bowie | By Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore elementary school children scored remarkable gains on reading and mathematics tests this spring, the first clear sign that an expensive, three-year reform effort is working.

Improvement on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills was seen in nearly every one of the city's 122 elementary schools, in nearly all grades, in both math and reading, school officials said.

First-graders scored nearly 20 points higher in reading than they did two years ago: 48.4 percent are now reading at or above the national average for their grade, up from 29.4 percent in the spring of 1998.

While some of the largest increases were seen in the early grades, where the school system has put most of its money, even fifth-graders' reading scores rose. In 1998, 17.7 percent were reading on grade level. This spring 34.5 percent are.

But perhaps the biggest surprise came in math scores. In first grade, scores were up by 11 percentage points over last year.

"These gains are the kind that professional educators hope to see once in a lifetime," said Sam Stringfield, a city school board member and Johns Hopkins University education researcher.

This year's percentage increases on the national standardized test, coupled with more modest improvements last year, are big enough to draw national attention. "These gains are as good, if not better, than we have seen in most urban systems in the last few years," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest school systems. "It is likely to turn heads all across the country."

School officials attributed the success to a variety of common-sense measures that have been put in place in the past three years. The system reduced class size to between 20 and 25 in the youngest grades, bought phonics-based reading textbooks and new math books, trained teachers in a new curriculum and gave struggling students extra help after school.

"It's not magic," said Betty Morgan, the school system's chief academic officer who is credited with having shepherded the changes. "It's old-fashioned good teaching with high expectations ... and a strong focus on teaching and learning."

Morgan attributed the improved performance to the hard work of the system's teachers, principals and students.

The test scores came with a caution. The state has not analyzed all of the city data, and so questions will remain in the minds of testing experts until a full accounting can be made of the increases.

But school chief Robert Booker was confident enough yesterday to celebrate in bright sunshine on the steps of the North Avenue headquarters with Mayor Martin O'Malley, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, City Council members, state legislators and schoolchildren.

"Wow! I think I can safely say that in nine years of serving in city government this is the most fantastic news we have heard about our school system," O'Malley said.

The test scores still fall below the state and national averages, but for a city grown used to expecting failure from each new experiment in education that came along in the past decade, the news that its children are closing the gap was a joyful surprise.

"I have labored a long time for this moment," said Grasmick. "I hope this will signal an important step forward in confidence in the system."

She hopes that as the improvement continues, families will begin returning their children to the public schools, Grasmick added.

Officials said the results proved that school children in Baltimore are as bright and competitive as any in the country.

Baltimore is the first school system in Maryland to report its scores on the CTBS this year, so the scores cannot be compared to others around the state.

Last year second-graders across the state scored at the 46th national percentile in reading and in the 43rd percentile in math.

First look at data

What the school system reported yesterday was a first look at the data. Stringfield said the gains are some of the largest he has seen in his 25 years of working with urban school systems. In Sacramento, Calif., students using the same phonics-based reading series as in Baltimore posted similar gains last year, although on a different standardized test.

In reading, citywide scores increased significantly in every grade but fourth. Fifth-grade scores had the largest one-year gain, followed by third grade. Morgan attributed those jumps to a directive to principals to put their strongest teachers in third and fifth grades, the two grades that are tested each May under the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

School officials found reassuring news below the surface of the data: the number of lowest achieving students diminished significantly, while the number of top performers has grown.

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