AT LAST: a handy new Web site that allows easy school-by-school comparisons in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
"Compare" is the operative word here. School people tend to avoid the comparison game because they think it stirs the competitive juices, and education isn't supposed to be about competition. It's supposed to be about self-improvement.
Never mind that at the district and school levels, MSPAP competition is intense.
Was that a banner we saw draped across Howard County school headquarters when Howard had the highest scores in the state? Are those MSPAP scores we see on real estate sales brochures?
Regardless, the state Department of Education has never made it easy for those who want to compile rankings or judge how School X performed against similar (or rival) School Y.
Advocates for Children and Youth, an independent, nonprofit advocacy organization, has made it simple. The site (www.maryland schoolreportcard.org) groups schools according to their 1997 MSPAP scores and then ranks them according to their improvements (or lack of same) over four years.
For example, the 23 schools where 70 to 80 percent of the third-graders tested scored satisfactory in reading in 1997 are tracked through 2000. With a couple of clicks, partisans of natural rivals such as Timonium and Riderwood elementaries in central Baltimore County can tell how they performed against each other. (Timonium improved by 11 percentage points; Riderwood declined by 3.)
Similarly, parents at rival Catonsville and Hillcrest elementaries in southwest Baltimore County can do a quick comparison. Hillcrest declined by 13.8 percentage points in the third grade, Catonsville by 27 percentage points. Nearly all the loss at both schools occurred in the 2000 round of testing. But in 1997, Hillcrest started out 11 points behind Catonsville, so there are no bragging rights at either end of Frederick Road.
"We believe that these comparisons can help parents better understand the meaning of the MSPAP scores for the schools their children attend," says Matthew Joseph, director of public policy for the group.
When scores are arrayed this way, it becomes clear how difficult it is for high-performing schools to improve over time. A topping-out phenomenon saw only two schools that were at the very top of the list in 1997 - Manor Woods in Howard County and Fort Garrison in Baltimore County - improve over the next three years in fifth-grade reading.
Meanwhile, schools at the very bottom in 1997, most of them in Baltimore City, made steady progress. Only five of 62 declined during the same period.
State education officials are well aware of these results. They derive, after all, from their data. What they show is a glass half-full and one half-empty. The good news is the steady, albeit slow progress of the worst performers. The bad is that the tide isn't raising all boats equally, and the problem is worst in the eighth grade.
The advocates' report card does have faults. Because schools aren't listed alphabetically, it's hard to find them, particularly in larger categories.
In fifth-grade reading, for example, 157 schools scored in the 30 to 40 percent range in 1997. And the last column to the right, which shows the four-year gain or loss, doesn't take into account year-to-year fluctuations. A school might have done well for three years, then plummeted - or vice versa.
But this report card - which can be used to compare composite scores and those in writing, language use, math, science and social studies, as well as reading - is a welcome addition.
We're going to compare anyway. Why not make it easy?
Irish children favor Milligan, Goosebumps
On March 24, while on vacation, I dropped by the public library in Adair, a village of thatch-roofed houses in western Ireland. I asked librarian Kathleen Moloney what Irish kids are reading these days.
Spike Milligan's "Children's Treasury" is popular, Moloney said. The book by the India-born poet, illustrator and children's author includes the classics "On the Ning Nang Nong" and "The Bald Twit Lion." There's also Milligan's "Badjelly the Witch," who can turn children into sausages or chop them up and serve them in boy-girl soup.
Moloney gave me a brochure for a children's book seminar this weekend in nearby Limerick. One of the speakers will be Colman O Raghallaigh, an author and publisher of children's books in the Irish language, which all kids must study in primary school.
The Adair library features a section of books in Irish. Leafing through "Cochaillin Dearg," I realized from the illustrations that it's "Little Red Riding Hood."
No problem in the next aisle recognizing the well-worn Goosebumps paperbacks, which Moloney said are very popular with Irish children. Alas.