Balto. County schools seeing higher scores on standardized tests

Smaller gains in math

superintendent addressing racial achievement gap

October 11, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Students in Baltimore County public schools made gains last school year on a range of standardized tests, including most categories of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills given to second-, fourth- and sixth-graders.

More eighth-graders passed the Maryland Functional Reading Test, a basic-skills test required for high school graduation. And 72 percent of high school students who took the difficult Advanced Placement tests passed, a slight gain over the previous year's results.

But students didn't perform as well in mathematics. And the county's growing number of African-American students -- they constitute about 40 percent of the system's nearly 108,600 students -- continued to score lower than their peers.

"There is much to celebrate," said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who released the results last night as part of an annual report to the school board.

Hairston interpreted the results as a testament to the work of principals and teachers, and said they show that the school system's emphasis on academic fundamentals is paying off.

The superintendent noted that progress was made while the school system is undergoing "seismic shifts" in demographics -- as more students from low-income families and more who don't speak English stream into the county's 162 schools -- "which means we've been able to sustain the quality of the performance in our school system."

In general, even disappointing scores exceeded national averages.

"There is room for growth, but if we stay on the course, we will make significant progress in the next two years," said Michael Franklin, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County.

The release of the results follows the announcement this year that SAT scores had climbed. Combined mathematics and verbal SAT scores jumped 20 points last school year to 1041, the school system said. The national average is 1020.

The percentage of students scoring 3 or higher on the 5-point AP exams increased slightly -- from 71.4 to 71.8. More high school students are taking the tests -- nearly 8 percent did last year -- marking the fifth consecutive year of increased participation.

Students can receive credit for college courses depending on their scores on the AP exams.

Hairston is encouraging teachers and principals to channel more of their capable students into challenging AP classes to better prepare them for college and the work force. The effort is central to the superintendent's effort to make schoolwork more rigorous.

On the CTBS, on average nearly 92 percent of second-graders met or exceeded national standards in reading. The figure was 90 percent for math. Almost 83 percent of fourth-graders met standards in reading, and 85 percent did so in math. The figures for sixth-graders were nearly 83 percent in reading and 78 percent in math.

Nearly 96 percent of eighth-graders passed the Maryland Functional Reading Test. But pass rates on the other Maryland Functional Tests fell to their lowest levels since 1998, at 83 percent in writing and 75 percent in math.

Hairston said the functional-test results indicate that the school system could focus more on helping eighth-graders, rather than ninth-graders, as it has been doing.

Overall, the math test results were the worst. Forty-five percent of students passed the county's final examination in Algebra I, considered a gateway to higher-level math courses. And 78 percent of sixth-graders met national standards on the math portion of the CTBS.

Hairston vowed to supplement the training of elementary and middle school teachers teaching math. And he said the school system needs to hire more middle school teachers certified in math.

On average, black students trailed their peers on all tests. For example, 52 percent of African-Americans passed the Maryland Functional Tests, compared with 78 percent of whites.

To address the gap, Hairston is pushing the system to raise expectations and reduce stereotyping of minority students as underachievers.

Karen Yarn, chairwoman of the PTA Council's minority education committee, said she believes that the achievement gap is closing, and she credits the superintendent's efforts.

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