Student testing still a struggle

Barely half pass required high school assessments

53 percent fail English exam

Local scores outpace statewide averages

January 11, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

While Harford County public school students improved their scores in the second year of state high school competency testing, more than half of the nearly 3,000 test-takers still failed the English test, and barely half passed algebra, biology and government. And Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas says bringing all students up to proficiency is going to be difficult.

"We face significant challenges in helping 100 percent - all - our students, regardless of circumstances or disability, to pass the high school assessments," Haas said, adding that she encourages parents to become familiar with the assessment requirements. "Getting a high school diploma may very soon be dependent on passing these tests."

Only 47 percent of students passed the English exam, up from 44.6 percent last year, and outpacing the state average of 39.8 percent. Math scores were higher, with 63.6 percent of students passing, compared with 53.2 percent statewide. The previous year, 60.5 percent of students passed.

"I am pleased with the improved performance of our high school students," Haas said.

Deb Merlock, a vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said the group plans to review the scores as part of its examination of changing high school diploma requirements.

"Basing graduation on the passing of four assessments is just not reasonable, considering some students don't test well or haven't had an opportunity to get the support they need in those subject areas," she said.

The test covers English, algebra, biology and government. Last month, the state Board of Education gave preliminary approval to making the new tests count toward graduation beginning with the class of 2009.

Getting help early

David Volrath, chief of secondary instruction for public schools, said the system needs to do a better job of reaching the middle-level pupils.

"I'm not sure we've done a great job with those kids sometimes," he said. "How do we make it meaningful for [them]?"

Volrath said the system also wants to reach students individually, to make them feel valued - and raise accountability.

He said proposals being considered by the administration to improve scores include creating career courses that reinforce basic skills; finding online opportunities that students can use for study at home, including course work and skill-building; and using standardized competency test scores to identify students for early intervention.

"We shouldn't be learning a kid is reading way below grade level when they get to grades 10, 11 or 12," he said.

In neighboring Cecil County, public schools spokeswoman Karen Emery said early intervention, especially in reading, is also a focus.

Cecil's scores fell in all areas except government, where scores rose from 56.4 percent to 60.3 percent, Emery said. Algebra scores fell from 70.8 percent to 66.2 percent, and English dropped from 40.3 percent to 34.8 percent, she said.

Students' strengths

Emery said with only two years of results to review, administrators were pleased to see the strong algebra scores, which outpaced the state.

With reading a critical part of the other testing areas, she said, the system is focusing on initiatives to strengthen student performance, including a proposal to add a reading specialist to work in high schools.

Cecil also has a 45-minute reading enrichment program in middle schools, she said, and tests reading competency to try to identify students needing extra help.

Further analysis from the state in March of individual questions and students' performance in answering them will also help schools hone problem areas, she said. Without that information, Emery said, "we can't identify where our students are strong or where they need assistance."

Emery said many students are not motivated to do well on the test.

"There's no incentive to perform well because it's not tied to graduation," she said. "They have to take it, but they don't have to pass it."

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