This week's release of Maryland's latest statewide test scores will draw particular attention to one subject in one grade: eighth-grade reading.
Since Maryland began publishing its MSPAP scores in 1993, no subject and no grade has bedeviled educators as much as the stagnant percentage of eighth-graders scoring satisfactorily in reading.
"The principals just go almost crazy this time of year, because the reading scores have been so frustrating," says Alice Haskins, Howard County's director of middle schools. "It's the one area where we really haven't figured out what the solution is yet."
The percentage of eighth-graders earning satisfactory marks on the reading test has increased less than 1 point from 1993 to 1999 - from 24.6 percent to 25.3 percent.
That figure rose as high as 28.6 percent in 1996, but has declined slightly each subsequent year and remains far from the state's target of 70 percent.
By contrast, every other eighth-grade subject area in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program examination has increased by at least 9 percentage points since 1993.
"Social studies and science go up, but reading scores keep staying flat," says Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, who is on leave from her position as a middle school special education, English and reading teacher. "That causes you to want to tear your hair out."
Across the state's 24 school systems, the flat eighth-grade reading scores on the MSPAP exams have led to intensified efforts during the past few years to boost middle school reading achievement.
"Most of our staff development is aimed at how to improve our reading scores," says Herbert W. Mills, principal at Kent County's Chestertown Middle School. "This has become very, very important for every teacher in our school."
Reading specialists are back in vogue at middle schools, and more seventh- and eighth-graders are being encouraged - if not required - to take classes in reading, in addition to language arts or literature.
Middle school teachers in all subjects are being told to consider themselves reading teachers, and all will be required to take classes in reading instruction when they seek to renew their certification during the next few years.
This year, a task force examining Maryland's middle schools said too little attention has been paid to reading instruction in those grades, particularly as pupils begin reading more technical textbooks and other materials in subjects such as science and social studies.
"I think that one of the real problems in Maryland and in lots of places is that we've continued to act as if middle-grades teachers don't need any special preparation to succeed at that level in reading," says Douglas MacIver, the task force's co-chairman and associate director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools. "Even those with reading backgrounds find that teachers reading to kindergartners and first-graders is very different than teaching reading in middle school."
Regardless of whether Maryland's eighth-grade reading scores edge upward this year, MacIver and other educators emphasize they have little doubt that more needs to be done to fix reading in middle schools.
"It is not a problem with the test, because there's not just one test in Maryland that shows flatness in reading achievement," MacIver says. "They all do."
First given to pupils in 1991, the MSPAP has become the centerpiece of the state's education reform effort, gaining national attention for its longevity and for its role in directing changes in instruction.
Unlike traditional, standardized multiple-choice exams, the MSPAP tests aim to measure more than basic reading and math skills. For five mornings each May, all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders are called upon to apply their knowledge, often by working in groups and writing long essays.
The tests are designed not to judge the abilities of individual students but to grade the effectiveness of schools' instruction in six subjects - math, reading, writing, language, social studies and science - at the three grade levels.
Yet the very nature of the MSPAP exams has prompted criticism, most recently in a scathing report commissioned by the Abell Foundation. That study charged that the MSPAP tests are full of mistakes and are an invalid measure of children's skills - points disputed by state officials.
State educators acknowledge that the MSPAP exams don't try to determine whether children know the mechanics of reading, such as how to decode unfamiliar words. The Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) - a national multiple-choice exam given to all of Maryland's second-, fourth- and sixth-graders - does an adequate job of checking those skills, officials say.