Fewer Carroll County elementary and middle school pupils are reading below grade level this year than last year, according to countywide reading test scores that will be presented to the school board tonight.
School officials credit early-intervention reading programs that have focused more individualized attention on schools' poorest readers, although administrators acknowledge that too many pupils still struggle to read.
"We certainly have a long way to go," said Gregory Bricca, the school system's supervisor of accountability and assessment. "We have areas to focus on. There are students we continue to have to reach. But we've made a positive first step."
According to results on this year's Rigby tests, a national reading assessment given by teachers to one pupil at a time, 14 percent of Carroll County's 8,070 first-, second-, third- and fourth-graders read at least six months below grade level.
That's an improvement from last year when 18 percent of 6,215 second-, third- and fourth-graders scored below grade level on the Rigby assessments given in January 2002. About 21.8 percent of the 6,280 children tested in May 2002 scored below grade level.
According to this year's Gates-MacGinitie results, a national standardized reading test, 31.9 percent of Carroll's 6,675 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders read at least six months below grade level.
Those results also show improvement. Last year, 32.8 percent of the county's 8,806 fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders scored below grade level on the reading tests.
Bricca, the school district's test score numbers-cruncher, said the county has not been using either reading test long enough to say whether reading programs developed over the past two years are working. But the reading tests are providing hints, he said, that the initiatives are starting to show positive results.
"My initial thought is that we're gaining something," Bricca said. "It appears that we are making some headway in targeting and supporting students who are having reading difficulties. We don't have enough long-term data to say we're definite for now because it's the kind of thing that needs to be evaluated long-term."
Neither test is required by the state. But Carroll educators began administering the Rigby and Gates-MacGinitie assessments countywide over the past few years to fill gaps left by the state-mandated Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Designed to assess an entire school's performance, the now-defunct MSPAP testing program did not report test scores for individual pupils.
The state's replacement tests - the Maryland School Assessments - will report pupil scores, which Carroll administrators say will make them incalculably more valuable than the MSPAP results.
Nevertheless, Bricca said, the value of the countywide Rigby and Gates-MacGinitie tests lies in the speedy availability of scores. Whereas MSPAP results sometimes were not available for more than a year and school officials are awaiting scores from last year's MSAs, Rigby assessments are graded by the classroom teacher who administers them and Gates-MacGinitie results are returned within two to three weeks.
"We can get those scores immediately and teachers can put the results into use immediately," Bricca said. "We can give the tests in April and by mid-May, at the latest, teachers can use the scores in planning for the next year. These tests are more instructionally informative than the MSAs are ever going to be."
The school board will meet at 5 p.m. today at the system's administrative offices on North Court Street in Westminster.