Leaders explain schools' gains

Many initiatives credited for jump in student test scores

July 16, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Middle school students at the Crossroads School near Fells Point were evaluated by teachers every single day last school year, with the results driving the next day's instruction.

At East Baltimore's Fort Worthington Elementary, about a quarter of the school's parents turned out for MSA Family Fun Night and sampled questions from the Maryland School Assessments.

Alexander Hamilton Elementary, situated in a West Baltimore neighborhood that the principal calls "gang-infested," started a gifted education program last year to challenge students to learn beyond their grade levels.

The principals of the three schools credit those and myriad other initiatives with making their schools among the most improved in Baltimore, during a year in which the school system overall posted historic gains on the standardized tests administered under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"This is Baltimore leading the way," said Gov. Martin O'Malley. "And this is also Maryland leading the way. Showing the people in the rest of our country that our best days really can be ahead of us."

MSA test results released yesterday showed strong improvements by students statewide, particularly among black and low-income students. But nowhere were those gains bigger - or more surprising - than in Baltimore schools.

There, students posted sharp increases in math and reading scores, at times amid potentially devastating distractions. Alexander Hamilton students made major gains on tests in a neighborhood so challenged that the school was under lockdown for three days because of nearby shootings, including that of a police officer. Principal Charlotte Jackson said a key to success has been persuading gang members, through gang-prevention workshops, to respect the school's boundaries and not recruit their younger siblings, leaving them free to concentrate on academics.

The city's MSA results are no fluke, schools chief Andres Alonso told a standing-room crowd of school officials, politicians, students and teachers at Fort Worthington yesterday.

"I have absolutely no doubt that we're going to replicate these results in the coming years," he said. "We will become a model school system for the nation as a whole."

Citywide, reading scores were up an average of 11 percentage points and math scores rose by 8 points. The biggest improvements were seen in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades, enabling the city to buck a national trend of stagnation among middle school students.

While the overwhelming majority of city schools posted improved MSA scores over last year, several showed declines, including Falstaff Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary in Upton and Harriet Tubman Elementary in Harlem Park.

The generally large gains in Baltimore and Prince George's County, which have large populations of poor and black students, contributed to a significant narrowing of the so-called "achievement gap" across the state. Maryland scores on the MSA, a test given in grades three through eight, improved statewide for the fifth year in a row.

City elementary schools have been making incremental progress for the past several years, but the scores released this week, particularly for middle schools, left many wondering how an urban system long associated with dysfunction managed to post such dramatic gains in a single year.

"I've been asked a hundred times already," a beaming Alonso said. "Why? Why? What do you attribute this to?"

The answer, according to the schools chief and his principals and teachers, is complex and not subject to any silver-bullet theory. Alonso attributed the academic improvement partly to investments in early childhood education that preceded his arrival in Baltimore last year but also to "the extraordinary sense of urgency that we have exhibited in the district this year, with a great focus on accountability and expectations."

School principals said adherence to a statewide instructional curriculum - coupled with intensive monitoring of individual students and engagement with their parents - probably were behind the test score gains.

At the Crossroads School, where 90 percent of students are poor enough to receive free or subsidized lunches, the percentage of eighth-graders scoring "proficient" or "advanced" on the math MSA rose from 32 percent in 2007 to 67 percent in 2008.

Citywide, only 28 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better on the math test, up from 24 percent last year.

"We just got smarter about making sure that our students could demonstrate mastery on any measure," said Crossroads Principal Marc Martin. In addition to assessing his roughly 150 students every day, Martin expanded hourlong "acceleration" classes in which students were grouped every day according to their particular needs and drilled on those subjects.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.