Edison schools see drop in scores

State put for-profit firm in charge of 3 city elementaries

July 13, 2006|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTER

Three Baltimore elementary schools taken over by the state six years ago have seen a significant drop in test scores this year, and at least one might not meet federal No Child Left Behind standards.

Scores at Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor elementaries dropped at least 10 percentage points in most grades, and scores for fifth- and sixth-graders at Montebello Elementary also fell sharply.

The three schools are run by Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit company chosen in 2000 by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state school board.

The poor report card for the three schools comes just a few months after the state attempted to put 11 more city schools in the hands of outside operators. It raises questions about whether a state takeover is the best way to improve failing schools.

State and company officials say that since Edison began running the schools - then considered some of the worst in the city - student performance has improved. The culture of the schools is much better, they say, and parents are pleased with the education their children are getting.

"School improvement is a long process," said John Chubb, chief education officer for Edison. "We started working in the schools six years ago when there were no worse schools in Baltimore. We have improved the schools."

But test results under Edison have been inconsistent, and virtually everyone is troubled by this year's drop.

"Certainly the results are not anything we are happy about," said James Foran, a state education official who manages the contract with Edison. He said state administrators will be meeting with Edison officials to get their analysis of what has happened in the past year.

The Maryland School Assessment given in March 2006 and released last month shows often poor results since 2005.

At Montebello, fewer than half the fifth-graders passed their math test, compared with 71 percent last year, and only 54 percent passed reading. But third- and fourth-graders did far better, and Montebello is not considered in danger of being labeled a school that needs improvement.

Below city average

But scores at Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor fell below the citywide averages in nearly all grades in both math and reading. The two schools also ranked in the bottom 25 of the city's 114 elementary schools, according to an analysis by The Sun of the Maryland State Assessments.

In some cases, the drop in scores was quite marked: 62.7 percent of third-graders at Gilmor passed the math test in 2005, but only 41 percent passed this year. And the school's sixth-grade math scores dropped from 53.2 percent passing to 30 percent passing. State officials say Gilmor's scores are poor enough that it might not meet federal standards and will continue to be classified as a school that needs improvement.

At Furman L. Templeton, scores dropped in third, fourth and sixth grades in both reading and math.

In each grade, for both reading and math, the scores of the three schools averaged together were about 20 percentage points below the statewide averages.

The decline in achievement has implications beyond the schools and their children.

Under the contract, Edison stands to gain up to $1.85 million as a bonus to its $21 million contract if the schools meet certain benchmarks, including achievement as measured by test scores. With scores declining this year, Edison could lose part of the bonus.

New contract

This year's test scores could also make it harder for Edison to negotiate another contract with the state before the current one expires next June. Foran said that if the state decides not to renew a contract with Edison, several options are possible. The schools could become charter schools, be given back to the city or transferred to another entity to operate.

Brian D. Morris, who chairs the city school board, said the city would "absolutely" be interested in getting the schools back. "I think we have a good model for elementary education," he said, pointing out that elementary schools in the city have improved in the past five years.

Taking the Edison schools back could help the school system financially, city officials say.

Edison charges the city about $9,000 per student. The city school system spends about $12,000 per student, but that includes administrative costs that individual schools don't have, city officials say. They say the average city-run elementary school gets far less than $9,000 per student. Charter schools in the city will get about $6,000 per student next year.

In a report released last year, the Abell Foundation analyzed the state's contract with Edison and was critical of the $5.6 million in "retained revenue" or overhead the company keeps for running the three schools.

"The question is, are other schools getting similar results without paying out $5 million to a third party?" Robert C. Embry Jr., the foundation president, asked this week.

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