Adding up good news for city math scores

The Education Beat

Results: Reading wasn't the only R that posted gains on standardized tests last year.

June 07, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE GOOD NEWS about reading test scores in city schools all but obscured another accomplishment: Mathematics scores shot up, as well.

At school after school in this year's administration of the California Test of Basic Skills, math scores paralleled reading scores on an upward slope. Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary was an example. Third-grade median reading scores jumped from 28 percent last year to 45 percent this year, while math scores moved from 32 percent to 68 percent.

Since the first and third R's are so intertwined - you can't work a math problem if you can't read it - it's not surprising that reading and math scores shadow each other, especially on a nationally standardized test such as the CTBS.

One other factor that's surprisingly easy to forget: In elementary schools, reading and math teachers are one and the same.

To produce the parallel numbers, a lot of hard work went into math and reading instruction.

Both disciplines benefited from new textbooks that made instruction uniform across the city's 122 elementary schools.

In math, it was the first citywide textbook adoption in 12 years, doing away with the every-school-on-its-own chaos that made no sense in light of the city's high student mobility rate.

The textbook adoption might not have occurred had Betty Morgan, the academic chief, given in to those who sought to delay or scrap the $2.3 million purchase.

Reform of city math instruction had been under way for four years, helped mightily by a $6 million multiyear grant from the National Science Foundation and other state and local funding.

That money helped pay for the training of 1,600 teachers for five weeks last summer, and it put "instructional support teachers" - specialists relieved of teaching duties - in 63 schools this school year.

Math can be tricky. In reading, the early-grade textbook is essentially the curriculum. In math, however, teachers have to deal with a curriculum dictated by the state that's not necessarily covered in textbooks published to satisfy the huge markets of California, Texas and Florida.

Most commercial textbooks pay scant attention in the early grades to mathematical probability, a mainstay of the third-grade Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. So Maryland schools neglect probability at their peril.

It's a mistake to assume that urban kids are incapable of performing at grade level, said Melva Greene, the city's coordinator of elementary math, and also a mistake to assume that city kids don't possess good math sense.

"Urban kids know a lot about math in a lot of ways," Greene said. Much of what might be called "street wisdom" - the need to manipulate money at an early age - involves mathematics knowledge.

The city shares one major problem with wealthier suburban districts.

If math savvy is accumulated in early grades, math deficiencies are accumulated in later elementary grades.

Stagnant eighth-grade MSPAP scores across Maryland sadly demonstrate this failure.

"Math instruction is a daunting task by the fifth grade," said Patricia F. Campbell, a national math authority and professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has been advising Baltimore educators. "In the first grade, we can give every child a book, a well-trained teacher and a good curriculum. But deficiencies have accumulated until by the fifth grade some of these children have never seen a math book."

Can the city maintain the momentum? It's the key question in reading and math alike. "We've gotten here by a combination of activities," said Campbell, "some of which are very expensive."

Those summer training sessions, those instructional support teachers, are costly, and the city must eventually become financially self-sufficient.

Instability at the top, as the city looks for another school chief, revelations of financial mismanagement that won't endear city schools with the governor and General Assembly - none of this bodes well for the instructional stability so desperately needed if the math and reading trains are to stay on track.

Developer's grant effort to fill technology pipeline

Surrounded by Mayor Martin O'Malley, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and other officials, developer C. William Struever pledged yesterday $100,000 for computer equipment and renovation of the library at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School.

The gift to the Locust Point school is part of Struever's effort to "bridge the digital divide," he said, and create a "digital harbor" in Baltimore along the lines of Silicon Valley in California.

Struever's Tide Point office complex is under construction nearby, and other businesses ringing the harbor are in need of employees with technological know-how.

One of the new high-tech firms, e-magination, joined the partnership in agreeing to provide technology training for Key's teachers.

"This is an effort to start filling that technological pipeline," said Struever, who is also a member of the city school board.

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