School success story Achievement: Pupils from a working- and middle-class Baltimore County neighborhood use lessons from real life to excel on state tests.


These children are not the ones most likely to summer in Europe or attend computer camp, whose test scores might be expected to soar off the charts.

They're largely the children of the working and middle class, who have landed a place among Maryland's elite on the latest statewide test of critical thinking.

How? Teachers and administrators at Fullerton Elementary credit decade-long emphasis on applying lessons to real-life situations -- a shopping trip, a bird habitat -- years before it became the heart of Maryland's education reform movement.

And in recent years, the school has focused intensively on, yes, teaching to the test.

Those four words -- once a grave insult in education circles -- are today precisely what reformers hope to accomplish: to turn instruction on its ear by issuing test questions that require children to reason, classify, apply, analyze and create.

In the process, children as early as kindergarten are learning a special language designed to help them outsmart the test, words such as rubric, glyph and pictograph; acronyms like FATP, which stands for form, audience, topic and purpose -- matters to keep in mind when crafting prose.

Fullerton, in Overlea, was the only Baltimore County school, and one of only four in the state, to meet standards on all third-grade tests in the 1996 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. It was among eight Maryland elementaries to show significant gains for three straight years. It bucked a statewide trend that saw third-grade scores in math, science and social studies plunge this year, and stood out in a county where overall scores stagnated.

The MSPAP test is given annually to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in six subjects apiece.

"I think the school should serve as some sort of model," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, adding that state officials would examine its formula.

Merging academics with life outside the classroom is second nature to Fullerton teachers.

Working it out

Fifth-graders last year, confronted with night-time vandalism of their playground, decided it needed some lights -- then spent two months studying and experimenting with electric, static, wind and solar energy before settling on electric lights, which were installed this fall.

Fourth-graders last year were fretting about having too many books and not enough space when they decided to build a bookcase -- then applied mathematical concepts to measure and cut. They also made a bird habitat and 16 birdhouses, in the process learning to read a blueprint.

Third-graders learning about Baltimore through a series of field trips are writing a children's guide highlighting favorite museums and sites, and plan to sell it en masse.

Writing on the wall

On the wall of every classroom are two signs: what students should know, and what they should be able to do with that knowledge, updated daily.

Such methods -- known as performance-based education -- are used widely in the county and the state these days. But because Fullerton principal John Hutchinson started it so long ago and understands it so well, the school is particularly adept at it, says Richard Bavaria, county executive director of curriculum and instruction.

What came along more recently -- in the 1990s, with the MSPAP -- was a dramatic infusion of buzzwords and test prototypes designed to train students so they're at ease with the test.

At a corner of the blackboard in Diane Ferenschak's kindergarten classroom is an index card with "MSPAP Vocabulary." Among the words: overlapping, diagram, characters, illustrate.

In older grades, teachers drumbeat the term "rubric," which means instruction -- signaling the importance of deciphering what the testers want them to do, and what will earn the most points.

Clustered around teacher Judy Meinhardt yesterday, third-graders went through an exercise -- created by their teacher -- that could have come right out of a MSPAP test. They needed to buy Christmas gifts but didn't have enough money, so they had to set up a business to sell hot cocoa. (They'll actually make it today.)

Instructions made it clear the children were to follow specific steps, including listing the various brands in order of cost, consulting a "resource book," and justifying in grammatically correct sentences their choice of a particular brand.

"The important thing is the instruction," said third-grader Madalyn Freeburger, who wore a teddy bear sweatshirt. "When you find the rubric, you know what you have to do."

No more tears

Meinhardt and other teachers say that in the early days of MSPAP some third-graders were reduced to tears because the test was so difficult. These days, they have more fun because they're prepared.

Still, as county educators look for models to replicate, they'll have to consider demographic factors -- which also might have helped Fullerton.

Though it's not a posh community, it also has few poor. Just over 12 percent of its students qualified for subsidized lunch last year, giving it the 28th lowest poverty rate out of 96 county elementary schools, and putting it well under the county average of 25 percent on subsidized lunch.

It's also a relatively homogeneous group of children, 8.5 percent minority in a school system that's 31 percent minority overall.

"This community has long been a throwback to the '50s," Hutchinson said. "Moms and dads, home ownership, parents walking their kids to school."

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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