Scores up, but doubts linger

Middle schools cause concerns despite Md. pupils' gains on tests

June 21, 2006|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTER

Pupils across the state showed steady but marginal improvement on their annual math and reading tests, earning little praise yesterday from state education leaders, who were displeased with lagging middle school scores.

The percentage of pupils passing the Maryland State Assessments in third through eighth grade rose in every jurisdiction in the state. But the gains in middle schools were not large enough to ensure that all school districts will meet the federal standards requiring all pupils to pass the tests by 2014.

"Every single system has improved in the aggregate," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools. "However, what is improvement is not necessarily satisfactory."

Passing rates are high among elementary school pupils - in some cases as high as 80 percent and 90 percent - but scores decline as they move into middle school.

To pass, a pupil must score at the proficient or advanced level.

Close to 80 percent of third-graders statewide are passing the math and reading tests, but among eighth-graders, 67 percent are passing reading and 55 percent are passing math.

"When we see these graphs, I caution us not to pat ourselves on the back," said state board member Jo Ann Bell.

Grasmick said she plans to provide training for more principals, a priority for several board members who think scores will rise only if schools are better run. Grasmick also said she will convene a task force to focus on improving middle schools.

Middle school achievement has been a thorny issue for more than a decade, and scores on the previous state tests stalled in the eighth grade.

In 50 elementary schools across the state, 100 percent of the students in at least one grade passed the reading or math test, and many counties had half a dozen elementary schools where more than 90 percent of pupils routinely pass the tests. Those schools tend to be in well-off areas, but some city schools with large numbers of poor children are also posting high percentages.

The scores released by the State Department of Education yesterday are an important accountability measure for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is designed to narrow the achievement gap for poor, minority and special education pupils.

Maryland educators said yesterday that pupils in those categories are still far behind the state average but are improving faster than pupils in the rest of the state.

For many pupils, the tests appear to be easy, and national groups have questioned why the scores are so much higher on the state test than on national tests.

Gary Heath, the state administrator in charge of testing, said the state test was designed so that it could eventually be passed by all pupils, as the law requires.

Summit Park Elementary School in Baltimore County was the highest-scoring elementary in the region by most measures, and Benfield Elementary in Anne Arundel County was second.

Most of the top dozen elementary schools were in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Two were in Howard County.

Some elementary schools in Baltimore also posted high scores. At George Washington Elementary, which has many poor and minority pupils, 80 percent to 90 percent of pupils in many grades passed the tests.

Among middle schools, small schools tended to do best. Howard County's tiny Clarksville Middle had the highest eighth-grade reading scores, and KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a charter school in Baltimore, had the highest eighth-grade math score.

Baltimore

An ebullient Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore schools' chief executive, called yesterday "a grand and glorious day for Baltimore City's public school system," saying pupils had scored "off the charts, if you will." Copeland announced Monday that she would step down from her post July 1.

Math scores increased in every grade in the city, but reading scores were flat or rose slightly.

Copeland lauded the city's third- and seventh-graders for making bigger gains on the reading and math tests than the average gains statewide. But the city's test scores remain 10 to 20 percentage points below the state average in the elementary grades.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris acknowledged some deficits. "We have now seen progress every year for the last seven or eight years," he said. "There will be some who characterize our progress as not fast enough, but the progress is undeniable."

Middle school scores remained poor. Heath said the seven middle schools the state had targeted for takeover did not make significant progress and that in some cases scores went down.

Chief Academic Officer Linda Chinnia, noting seventh-grade gains in reading, said, "We were bold this year, and we did something different in the middle school, and you saw the results of that in seventh-grade literacy, as well as the seventh-grade mathematics."

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