Fixing middle schools

June 26, 2005

AS MARYLAND educators sift through results of the annual state assessment test, they are focusing on schools that failed to make the grade. Last week, officials announced that 173 of more than 1,000 elementary and middle schools around the state were "in need of improvement." The test results show declining achievement in the middle grades, particularly in Baltimore, where all of the traditional middle schools and about half of the schools covering kindergarten through eighth grade made the list.

State and city school officials must move quickly to identify and start implementing reforms that will improve middle school performance.

Maryland has been testing students in third, fifth and eighth grades since 1991. This year, in response to mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law, students in the fourth, sixth and seventh grades were tested as well. While the percentage of middle school students who are considered proficient in reading and math improved slightly from last year, the overall proportion of proficient students decreased in the higher grades of middle school. For example, this year, about 74 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in reading and 69 percent were proficient in math, compared with about 68 percent and 63 percent, respectively, in 2004. Yet among eighth-graders, about 66 percent passed muster in reading and 51.7 percent in math, up from nearly 64 percent and nearly 46 percent, respectively, last year.

Sagging achievement in middle schools, which has been noted nationally, was certainly not the intent of reformers who thought it best to separate grades five or six through eight in order to focus on the changing needs of preadolescents apart from younger elementary students. A report this year by the Education Trust showed that of about 27 states studied for improvements under NCLB, most showed progress in reading in elementary grades, but only 16 showed progress in the middle grades, and achievement either declined or remained flat in 11 states.

Experts suggest that school systems need to pay a lot more attention to maintaining high-quality instruction throughout middle and high schools, and not just focus on improving achievement in the early grades. That means ensuring that more middle school teachers are specialists -- not generalists -- with a thorough command of the subjects they teach.

To ensure middle-grade improvements in Baltimore and other districts, city and state officials are also re-examining the merits of K-8 schools and middle schools. Whatever the model, schools need strong leadership, smaller classes, qualified and committed teachers and involved parents. Those are ingredients for student success at any level, and state and city officials should redouble their efforts to make sure they exist for all middle-grade students.

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