Because every state has its own assessment tests, measuring a system's results against another's can't be done, experts say

Comparing schools' success difficult

April 06, 2006|By LIZ BOWIE ... | LIZ BOWIE ...,SUN REPORTER

Want to know how Baltimore's school system compares with other urban districts around the nation? Are schools better elsewhere? Are other kids learning more?

The question is virtually impossible to answer. While the nation will spend an estimated $517 million this school year to test children under the No Child Left Behind Act, every state has its own test and the results cannot be compared, national experts say.

"With 50 different standards and measurements, it is a big mess," said Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research group. "And it isn't making us understand which of our schools need intervention and which don't."

"You don't have comparable assessments," agreed Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

The one national test that is required, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is given only to a sampling of students. While it allows for state to state comparisons, data aren't available for most cities and local districts.

Last year, 11 cities volunteered to have more extensive testing in their districts so the results could be compared. But Baltimore was not among them.

For the most part, state and local school systems have fought attempts to have a mandatory national assessment linked to the federal law because they believed it would intrude into local decisions about what is taught.

But demands for testing might become more widespread as states like Maryland move to take over schools under No Child Left Behind. The state school board voted last week to seize control of 11 failing middle and high schools in Baltimore. The plan - which the General Assembly wants to put on hold for a year - raises the question of just how bad the local schools are in relation to others around the country.

Without hard data, educational experts tend not to want to comment on whether Baltimore's school reform movement has produced better results than in other cities.

Those who will comment have different views of the city. Christopher Cross, a former Maryland school board president in the mid-1990s, said Baltimore is probably in the bottom quartile of urban systems. Others see the picture less bleakly. Sam Stringfield, a former Baltimore school board member and education researcher, has said he thinks Baltimore's progress has been remarkably faster than most urban districts'.

What is known is that Baltimore's scores on national standardized tests and on state tests, including a predecessor to the ones given now, are going up. In elementary grades, test scores have risen every year for six years in most subjects and grades. In middle schools, the scores went up some years, but have been largely stagnant in the past two years.

High schools have had few achievement gains, although the graduation rate is rising and the dropout rate is falling. The city began an overhaul of its high schools five years ago, breaking up some of the largest ones and opening six new small ones. But those changes have not translated to achievement gains on state tests.

The Council of Great City Schools, an organization representing urban school systems, reported last year that Baltimore was one of seven big-city school systems where test scores in both math and reading were rising at a faster pace than the state average.

But other urban systems are making progress, too. The mayor of New York took control of the school system there and has instituted widespread changes, including increasing the number of charter schools. After a state takeover, Philadelphia is being run by a commission. "Philadelphia seems to be on the path to significant reform," said Petrilli.

Hess, at the American Enterprise Institute, said Baltimore is not one of the school systems that have gained attention for improvement. "I never met anyone who would point to Baltimore as a spotlight district," he said.

Other districts have their own failing schools.

The U.S. Department of Education released preliminary data recently showing that more than a quarter of schools in the nation did not meet the No Child Left Behind standards last year, up slightly from the year before.

And there are high schools in every large city that have been perennial problems.

While Baltimore has its Frederick Douglass High School, one of the four high schools the state wants to take over, Washington has Anacostia High School, where 6.4 percent of students passed the reading test and 11.2 percent of students passed the math. And New York has its William H. Taft High School in the Bronx, which had a 26 percent graduation rate in 2004.

Under the federal law, states can intervene to oust a principal, require a change in curriculum or take over a school after five years of failure.

Grasmick is the first state superintendent in the nation to move to take over schools - and she is doing so only four years after the federal law took effect.

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