Summer programs help students make the grade

Overlea is one of several schools aiding efforts to improve state test scores

August 12, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The session is devoted to reviewing test questions on math, and the teacher asks his students how they can figure out the total price of six compact discs costing $12.75 each.

"Add or multiply," the students answer correctly, a sign that they could reverse their failing scores on a state test that landed them in this summer class.

At Overlea High School in Baltimore County, July is not too early to start helping poorly performing students pass high-stakes tests. For the past five summers, Principal James F. Thanner has brought three dozen incoming ninth-graders into the building early for just such work.

These teen-agers have failed the Maryland Functional Math Test or the Maryland Writing Test, both of which they must pass to graduate from high school.

The three-week summer program is designed to give students the skills to pass those tests so they don't start ninth grade behind their classmates. In small classes, they study things such as addition and multiplication of numbers with decimals - and how to apply those processes on tests.

After completing the Pupils Achieving in Summer School program, students who retake the state tests average double-digit increases in their scores. Most pass. All but one of the 37 students who participated during the program's first summer in 1998 graduated from high school this year.

"It's been very successful in helping these kids," said Wade Kerns, assistant coordinator.

The effort reflects a national trend to devote more resources to high school students who are far behind their classmates. Boston sends children who fail statewide assessment tests to after-school classes. This school year, Chicago will give its poorly performing students two classes a day in reading and math.

School systems are focusing on these students, experts say, due to the harsh spotlight shone by assessment tests.

"Part of the idea of standards reform is to say we're not going to pass kids through," says Carlton Jordan, a senior associate at the Education Trust, a Washington organization that works to improve the education of low-income and minority students.

Jordan says the next step for schools is to alter regular instruction so students learn skills when they are supposed to - avoiding the need for remedial help. Schools across Maryland have established remedial programs for incoming ninth-graders who have failed the state functional tests.

Other programs in area

In Anne Arundel County, students have the choice of attending a summer program or taking remedial reading and math classes during the school year. Howard County students who fail the test must attend four weeks of summer classes. Baltimore students who fail the functional tests must take summer classes and pass the tests before entering ninth grade, or they enter remedial classes at their high schools.

In Baltimore County, Chesapeake and Dundalk high schools also have summer remedial programs for their students who need help on the functional tests, while Pikesville and Perry Hall middle schools offer classes for pupils from throughout the county, says Abe J. Price, an alternative education facilitator for the school system.

Rick Hepler, the Overlea teacher who was asking students how to calculate the cost of compact discs, believes the PASS program succeeds because classes are small, with about 10 students. "You can really see what kids are missing," Hepler says, "and really hone [in] on where they are struggling."

Charneisha Moore, a 14-year-old from Rosedale, had failed the Maryland Functional Math Test but passed after taking the program. She attributes her improvement to the constant review of math with fractions.

"I knew it, but I just wasn't good at it," she says. "The PASS program helped me." And she feels better prepared going into high school.

Scott Kilpatrick, who runs Dundalk High's remedial program, says the school started it this year to help students avoid the frustration that comes from trailing other students. "These kids could easily become one of your dropouts," he says, "because they get frustrated and quit."

Indeed, one benefit of such remedial programs is smoothing the difficult transition between eighth and ninth grade, a period when many students become lost.

Ruth Curran Neild, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied the phenomenon in Philadelphia schools, says students who enter high school lacking the necessary skills often see their grades drop drastically from the start. Then they lose their enthusiasm for school, attendance falls, they fail ninth grade and often drop out. Neild says summer "bridge" programs like Overlea's are a common method for aiding incoming ninth-graders who are at risk, but the programs must be supplemented during the school year.

"What you need to get kids through the ninth grade requires more than seeing them for three weeks in the summer," she says. "It requires teachers really getting to know the kids and their issues."

Beyond PASS

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