Students perform well on test of basic skills, but their aptitude falls Overall quality is high, but black, Hispanic pupils continue to score lower


Howard County students continue to perform well on the national exam for basic skills despite a decline in their collective aptitude, according to the results of last spring's Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills.

The CTBS results also showed that a gap persists between the scores of white and Asian-American students and those of African-American and Hispanic pupils.

The test results for third-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders who took the CTBS exam last spring were presented to the county school board Thursday night.

The exam assesses pupils' reading, language and mathematics XTC skills. It's given along with an aptitude test, called the Test of Cognitive Skills. The school system then compares students' performances on the skills tests with how well they ought to perform based upon the test of their aptitudes.

Countywide test scores have remained fairly steady during the five years that the school system has administered the test, said Leslie Walker-Bartnick, the school system's supervisor of testing.

"This shows that the kids are learning the basics," Ms. Walker-Bartnick said. "The average scores are at or above anticipated levels."

But for the first time, the collective aptitude of Howard students declined, with a five-percentage-point decrease in the number of students with above-average aptitudes.

Ms. Walker-Bartnick said she did not have an immediate explanation for the decline in the aptitude, and it does not appear to have affected students' test scores.

Despite the decline in overall aptitude, the quality of students attending Howard schools remains relatively high; 55 percent of students have above-average aptitudes, and 23 percent have aptitudes that are highly above average -- indicating that 78 percent of Howard pupils have aptitudes that are higher than the average student nationwide.

Several elementary schools stood out for measurable improvements they have made in the past year, Ms. Walker-Bartnick said. She specifically cited both Stevens Forest and Waterloo elementaries for gains they have made. Both schools were among five elementary and one middle school targeted by the school board last year for their lower-than-expected performances on assessment exams. The other four schools were Dasher Green, Elkridge and Talbott Springs elementaries and Hammond Middle.

At Stevens Forest in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, Principal Wilbur Payne said the school's higher test scores are the result of a number of changes made last fall.

Representatives from the school system's math and language arts offices came into the school to help teachers with staff development, and funds were scrapped together to replace outdated textbooks. After-school and evening activities also were begun to try to include more families in their children's education.

"We're really proud of what we've done to improve our scores," Mr. Payne said. "The credit has to go to the staff and the parents for succeeding."

Minority students continued to have lower CTBS results than did white students, Ms. Walker-Bartnick said. "They continue to lag behind a bit in most content areas." To narrow that gap, the school system in the past several years has begun a number of efforts, the most notable of which is the Black Student Achievement Program.

BSAP is intended to help support black students by providing academic monitors to ensure they attend class and do their homework. Although BSAP has had some success, minority test scores have continued to lag, in part because the school board hasn't been able to fully fund the program.

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