Baltimoreans least happy with schools

Most respondents favor tough test for graduation

The Maryland Poll

January 10, 2001|By Howard Libit and Thomas W. Waldron | Howard Libit and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Marylanders are less than satisfied with their public schools and believe that rigorous high school tests and more and better qualified teachers are needed for them to improve.

Education tops the list of voter concerns heading into the 90-day legislative session, the Maryland Poll found. And despite recent test score gains in Baltimore, city voters are the unhappiest in the state with their schools.

"The schools are getting better, but they need more," said Trina Rawles, 26, who has two children at Bay Brook Elementary School in southern Baltimore.

The statewide poll of more than 1,200 registered voters gave the schools an average grade of C+ - a mediocre passing score in most classrooms.

"Obviously, I'd like it to be an A, but if they gave the schools A's I would be shocked,'" said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We know we have too many children who aren't being successful learning, and until that changes we don't deserve an A."

The poll found regional differences in voters' opinions. Montgomery County residents issued a B- to their schools - the highest grade of any region in the state - but parents in Baltimore and Prince George's County indicated they're very worried about the quality of education their children are receiving.

"Something is very wrong with the schools here," said Pearline McPhail, 58, of Forestville in Prince George's, who has two daughters in high school and gave the county's schools a grade of D.

"You need better teachers, you need more books, you need to do a better job," McPhail said. "If they're going to be ready for college, they've got to be able to succeed at the high school level."

Voters offered a variety of answers to improve the schools, but a vast majority agreed on one solution - requiring that high-schoolers pass tough tests to earn diplomas.

Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they favor that requirement, which the state school board tentatively plans to impose on graduates for the Class of 2007. Support for such testing was strongest in Baltimore and its nearby suburbs.

"I think you need some kind of testing to gauge that students have met the standards for graduation," said Lisa Hall, a 40-year-old mother of two in Columbia. "It shouldn't be the end-all, be-all of schools, but it's important that you know what level your children are on."

But, while voters are overwhelmingly supportive of high school graduation tests in the abstract, they hardly endorse the state school performance exams that have been given for the past eight years.

"Standards are mom and apple pie and motherhood," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of companies that has been one of the biggest backers of new high school tests. "The rub always comes in how do we get all of the students to meet the standards, when we get to the details of the accountability."

Only a quarter said they believe education has improved as a result of the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program - the tests given to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in six subject areas each spring.

Perhaps more significant, almost half of adults with children at home said they don't believe the MSPAP tests have made any difference in leading to better quality education.

"There is an enormous education that has to be done with the MSPAP," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda, which conducted the poll for The Sun and two Washington-area news outlets, The Gazette newspapers and WTOP radio. "Of the people who know it best, they really have questions about its effectiveness."

Asked for the single change to most improve schools, a combined 38 percent suggested three ideas that have been pushed nationally and in Maryland: smaller class sizes, better teachers and higher teacher salaries.

Yet voters' ideas were all over the map, with support for stricter discipline, tougher standards, improved reading instruction and increased parental involvement.

"Without the parental involvement, you're just fighting a losing battle," said Marvin Thorpe, 67, of Woodlawn, retired from 29 years as a city elementary school teacher. "You've got to come to school with the desire to learn."

On the divisive issue of state tax credits for private or parochial schools, the position of Maryland voters appears to have shifted.

In a July 1998 statewide poll for The Sun and other media outlets, 50 percent of voters supported such credits and only 44 percent opposed them. But the current poll found support for credits has dropped to 45 percent, with opposition growing to slightly more than half.

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