In what was a celebration for many -- and a wake for a few -- the Maryland State Department of Education handed out its annual report card yesterday. With it, hope came that the state's education goals are not as far-fetched as they once seemed.
Nineteen out of 24 school districts got better grades on the state's performance tests, and schools statewide improved in 15 of 18 subject areas.
Improvement in attendance and dropout rates meant that more youngsters were showing up at school each day and staying through graduation.
Still, several of the state's larger districts, including Baltimore and Montgomery counties, posted only insignificant gains.
And while some districts made great progress, others were left further behind.
Baltimore City remained deep in the cellar -- on average, 13.5 percent of the city's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders earned satisfactory scores.
"This report card tells us that our schools are rising to the challenge, but [success] is not consistent across the state or even across a single system," said Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick during a 90-minute ceremony at which the scores were released.
The Baltimore area had several of the state's top-ranked districts.
Howard County retained its first-place status statewide, with Carroll second and Harford fourth. Anne Arundel County placed eighth and Baltimore County, 13th, according to a composite ranking that measures satisfactory scores on one or more of the six tests given to 174,000 third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in May.
The tests, known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, are the centerpiece of a statewide reform program started in 1990. The tests gauge progress in reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and language usage.
Unlike traditional standardized tests with multiple-choice answers, these tests measure not only what students know, but also how well they can apply that knowledge to real-life situations. The tests also are meant to measure a school's
effectiveness, rather than an individual student's abilities.
The state goal is for 70 percent of the students in each school to score at least satisfactorily -- with 25 percent in the excellent category -- on all six tests by 2000.
Statewide, 46 percent of the elementary schools are meeting or approaching the standard in third grade and 56 percent in fifth grade. Nearly 62 percent of Maryland's middle schools are at or near the standard.
In 1993, fewer than one-third of the state's students scored satisfactorily on one or more of the tests, and only four districts had 40 percent or more of its students at a satisfactory level. The tests were criticized by some parents, teachers and administrators; gains like those reported yesterday seemed further away than the millennium.
But even with its first-place ranking, Howard County remains well short of the state's standard -- on average, 56.9 percent of its students scored satisfactorily.
Only one school -- Somerset Elementary in Montgomery County -- met the state standard for all six tests in third and fifth grades, said Mark Moody, assistant state superintendent in charge of data collection, analysis and reporting.
Still, school officials are optimistic.
"I have no doubt that as a state we will make the goal," said Grasmick. "I want to make sure that every system and every school makes the goal. Do we have work to do? You bet we do, a lot of work."
Third-graders, especially, need work in math, science and social studies, the tests showed. Overall, third-grade achievement dropped significantly in math and science and fell so far in social studies that the number of schools with satisfactory scores dipped below the 1993 baseline level.
When asked to grade overall school performance, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a former college instructor, said no teacher gives just one grade. So he issued three: A for effort, B for improvement and B- in achievement.
During the fanfare that included balloons, music and speeches, Grasmick praised the "stunning examples" of successes in Anne Arundel, Caroline, Dorchester, Carroll and Allegany counties.
"The thing that we found most gratifying is that we've achieved significant growth, but also consistent growth," said Spicer Bell, superintendent of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore.
Despite a bad economy and many poor families, he said, his schools are succeeding in "an atmosphere where people are not afraid to try things."
"We're teaching differently. We have teachers who are better prepared to teach active lessons."
Grasmick expressed concern for districts that slipped this year, but did not single them out.
Every district's progress -- or lack thereof -- was obvious, however, in 24 graphs displayed in the state board room.
On each poster, a black line in a graph tracked the district's scores from 1993 through 1996. For many, the line went at least halfway up the poster; for Baltimore, the line nearly paralleled the bottom of the page.
"Isn't it dramatic?" Grasmick said of the difference after the ceremony.
Though she was not ready to give up on the city's ability to reach the state standard in the next four years, Grasmick conceded that it would take "significant increments of progress" each year to do so.
She said a new partnership, in which Baltimore gave the state a greater role in school management in exchange for more state aid, would give city schools "a real jump-start."
In addition to the MSPAP scores, the annual report card includes a dozen other measures. They include attendance and dropout rates, and percentage of students passing the state's functional tests in reading, writing, mathematics and citizenship.
Pub Date: 12/13/96