Baltimore's elementary and middle school pupils continued to make steady gains on national standardized tests this spring, distinguishing the city as one of a handful of large urban districts across the nation to show five successive years of progress.
For the second year in a row, pupils in grades one through eight posted gains in math, a subject that teachers and principals had given extra attention in the past several years.
And this year, for the first time, the majority of first- and second-graders in the city scored above the national averages in math and reading on the TerraNova national standardized test.
"I really believe that all of us have brought the school system to the next level, and today's announcement is the culmination of that," said Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, who is leaving the school system next month after three years in the job.
"The next administration can build upon [the achievement] and keep the momentum going," she said.
When school reform began in Baltimore in 1997, the then-chief executive officer kept in his office a large poster showing dismal test scores so that when he looked up he would be reminded to work harder.
Today, the plots of scores show upward lines at all elementary and middle school grade levels over five years. Citywide average scores have doubled in some of the early grades in both math and reading.
For instance, first-grade math scores have gone from the 23rd national median percentile in the 1998-1999 school year to the 58th percentile this year. In second-grade math scores during the same period, the improvement has been from the 21st percentile to the 52nd.
If a pupil ranks in the 50th percentile, he or she has scored better than 49 percent of all pupils who took the test. As a result, 50 is considered the national median. Baltimore students who score below the 23rd percentile are held back.
Also in math, eighth-grade scores jumped from the 32nd percentile a year ago to the 37th percentile this year. In reading, second-grade scores jumped to the 50th percentile after being at the 44th percentile two years running. The fifth-grade reading scores have risen from the 16th to the 41st percentile over five years.
Victory for Russo
A personal victory for Russo were the scores of the nine schools in the CEO's district to which she has paid close attention during the past two years. Chosen because they had been the lowest-achieving in the city, the schools were given advantages including a longer school day, higher-paid staff and more training for teachers. All nine schools showed gains in math, and eight of the nine showed gains in reading.
At Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, one of the schools in the CEO's district, first-grade reading scores rose from the 42nd percentile to the 75th percentile during the past two years.
Another indication of improvement came in the middle schools, where even some of the most troubled showed significant increases. The citywide average scores, although substantially lower than those of the early grades, rose in grades six through eight in reading and math.
While the mayor, school officials and students celebrated yesterday at the system's North Avenue headquarters with cake and balloons, other educators offered a note of caution.
The scores might have gone up for two reasons: About 20,000 children were held back last year as a result of a new promotion policy, and scores tend to rise after schools have used a test for a number of years.
"This is clearly an indication of progress, but I do offer this caveat: This is simply one measure, and it is a test which we are, in fact, retiring from the state," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
She said almost every school system in the state scored higher on the test, although most of the systems in the state have yet to release the results of the test. Grasmick cited what is called the "practice effect," which contributes to higher scores after a test is given for five years.
Despite that skepticism, school board member Sam Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who evaluates school reform efforts around the country, said Baltimore stands out for the breadth of improvement during the past five years.
Not only has the system improved its scores on both the TerraNova and the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, but the city's graduation rate has also gone up.
"It is very important for the nation to have some big urban success stories, and Baltimore provides one," Stringfield said.
`This is wonderful'
His words were echoed by Sharon Lewis, director of research for the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools, who said Baltimore is one of only a few systems that can claim such sustained progress.
"Overall, to see that kind of continuous growth is unusual. ... This is wonderful," Lewis said.