City schools improve test scores

Numbers: Acknowledging that further improvement is needed, officials say they are encouraged by the latest data.

Maryland School Assessment

June 08, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Baltimore public schools made gains in the latest round of the Maryland School Assessment, but improvements in the state's most-challenged school system were less substantial than this time last year.

Although they acknowledged that they see plenty of room for improvement, city school officials said they were encouraged by the data released by the state yesterday.

"Have we reached where we want to go with our children? No, we have not. But we are certainly headed in the right direction," said school board Chairwoman Patricia Welch.

FOR THE RECORD - A chart yesterday giving results of the Maryland School Assessment tests omitted test scores for KIPP Ujima Village Academy. The passing rate for fifth-graders on the math test was 93 percent, up 4 points from last year. On the reading test, 72 percent of fifth-graders passed, an improvement of 20 percentage points over last year. The Sun regrets the error.

As a group, city schools posted gains on the reading and math assessments in most grades.

The exceptions were the seventh and eighth grades, where the percentage of pupils who passed the reading test -- 40 percent -- fell by 3 and 2 percentage points respectively from last year. The test was given in March.

Pupils in grades three, five and six fared better in reading, making gains that outpaced the rate of improvement statewide. The passing rate among the city's fifth-graders rose eight points to 58 percent, for example, while the statewide fifth-grade rate increased six points to 74 percent.

Math scores rose in every grade tested -- three through eight -- but not as quickly as in the rest of the state.

The rate of third-graders who passed math rose by two points to 56 percent, while the statewide rate increased by five points to 77 percent.

Although seventh- and eighth-graders did not lose ground in math, they gained very little.

The passing rate in each grade went up by half a percentage point -- to 18 and 19 percent, respectively -- and continued to lag far behind the state average of more than 50 percent.

Last year, by comparison, eighth-graders in the city improved by seven percentage points on the math test.

Better than expected

Despite modest improvement in some areas, city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said the schools did better than she expected, considering the stresses they have been under, including a shortage of teachers willing to work in city schools and budget cuts implemented to reduce a $58 million deficit.

"All of that takes its toll," Copeland said. "I was worried that we wouldn't see any improvement on the MSAs. ... Against all odds, [everyone] pulled together to focus on teaching and learning."

School officials said they were concerned about middle-school scores and plan to analyze them to find weaknesses in the program.

They said some problems will be addressed next year by a middle-school reform initiative that is getting under way.

Groups of traditionally underachieving pupils, including minorities and special education and low-income pupils, made gains in reading and math, as did the general population. In some cases, they posted more-robust gains than groups that traditionally perform at higher levels.

Scores for black elementary school pupils, for example, increased at a faster rate than those of their white counterparts in reading and math. But in some grade levels, the improvement for these groups lagged behind the general population.

State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick offered cautious praise of the city school system.

"I want to give them credit for improvement, but I think it has to be put in relative terms," Grasmick said in an interview. "There is still a huge gap" between the city's test scores and those of the rest of the state.

Baltimore officials, however, celebrated what they consider to be significant gains.

Though this year's passing rate in eighth-grade reading test scores were down, Copeland emphasized a different point: that eighth-graders gained nearly 10 percentage points on the reading test given last year.

Outside school headquarters on North Avenue yesterday afternoon, administrators displayed large bar charts to show how city pupils' performance improved over the past three years.

Praise from mayor

Mayor Martin O'Malley praised Baltimore's pupils and teachers.

"This is no less than one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America," O'Malley told the group of school officials, community members and pupils from nearby Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary assembled for a ceremony under a sweltering sun.

In his address, the mayor offered no facts to back up his claim. Baltimore schools have shown improvement on standardized tests designed by the state of Maryland since 1998. But the progress of urban systems in other states is measured using different tests.

Principal Irma Johnson was more measured than the mayor -- though no less pleased -- about the gains made by pupils at Dallas F. Nicholas Sr., where the passing rate in reading among the school's third-graders jumped 17 points to 73 percent.

"I've been asking my teachers for [increases of] 10 percentage points," Johnson said. "That's been my goal, and this year, they did better than that."

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