Rural 3rd-graders see big reading drop

Decline prompts officials to emphasize urgency of statewide curriculum


January 29, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

After all that effort, reading remains in a swamp, and the farther off the beaten path, the deeper the water.

Third-graders in the state's rural districts lost considerable ground in the 2001 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, prompting state officials to stress the urgency of a new statewide curriculum. Across Maryland, reading scores in the fifth and eighth grades were stagnant, and because many large districts such as Baltimore moved up a tick, the overall state statistics masked the poor performance of the rural districts, officials said.

Five small districts, including the state's MSPAP leader in the late 1990s, Kent County, experienced double-digit declines in third-grade performance. Kent declined by 12 percentage points from 2000, Talbot County by 17.6 percentage points, Wicomico County by 10.8, Dorchester County by 10.7 and Garrett County in Western Maryland by 15.9 percent.

Suburban districts weren't immune. Montgomery County, a high-flier in recent years, saw its third-grade scores drop by 6.6 points, and Harford, a rapidly suburbanizing system, declined 4.5 points.

Brian J. Porter, a Montgomery spokesman, said county school officials "have serious questions about the validity and reliability" of MSPAP. He said educators could find no logical explanation for "wild swings" in 2001 scores at some county schools.

But the big losers were Maryland's smallest districts. "I'm disappointed," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state school superintendent. "The smaller counties don't have the curriculum or personnel to develop a reading curriculum and revise it to meet state standards. That's why a statewide curriculum will be helpful to these districts. It's a matter of resources, both money and personnel."

Grasmick also attributed the disappointing performance to the number of new and inexperienced teachers in Maryland reading classrooms who have little idea how to teach children to "decode" words - that is, break them into parts, a necessity in beginning reading.

"And that's only going to get worse," added Grasmick, referring to a serious statewide teacher shortage.

In her state-of-education talk yesterday, Grasmick didn't mention the generally poor performance in third-grade reading, which has changed little since 1995. Fifth-grade scores statewide were unchanged over 2000, and - despite a major study and much rhetoric - eighth-grade scores have been flat since MSPAP became official in 1993.

Gary Heath, the state's chief for arts and sciences, has been touring schools for several weeks as Grasmick's eyes and ears. On the Eastern Shore, he said, "what I've seen is that the alignment between MSPAP and instruction isn't there yet. There's lots of emphasis on skills and not enough on the performance aspects of the testing programs."

If that is the case, however, overall scoring trends on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, a national test that is more skills-oriented than MSPAP, mirrors that of the Maryland performance test in the three grades it's given, two, four and six. CTBS reading scores also have been stagnant in recent years.

As usual, there were exceptions among districts and within districts. Worcester County, which includes Ocean City, was the only Maryland district to see statistically significant score increases in both third-grade MSPAP and second- and fourth-grade CTBS.

"It's a matter of perseverance and never losing sight of the goal," said Irene Kordick, principal of Ocean City Elementary, one of Worcester's star performers.

Similarly, in Southern Maryland, Ted Haynie, principal of St. Leonard Elementary in St. Leonard, reported solid progress among third-graders in his Title I school and a narrowing of the achievement gap between whites and minorities, a gap that continues to afflict the state in the testing of reading.

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