Scores fall statewide in social studies Report card finds negative trend for third-graders; Carroll ranks 2nd overall; County, state educators puzzled by test results


The test results have produced as many questions as answers so far, but Carroll and state officials are examining what might have led to a precipitous drop in third-grade social studies scores on the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program tests.

The drop is statewide -- 80 percent of elementary schools saw their third-grade social studies scores go down. In Carroll, the decline was smaller than statewide, and six of the county's 18 elementary schools' scores in that category actually went up, said Peggy Altoff, social studies supervisor for Carroll.

In general, Carroll County's showing on the report card was favorable, earning it an overall ranking of second in the state, just behind the more affluent Howard County. Carroll was praised by state officials, who say it is one of a few counties that have shown consistent gains every year since the test was first given in 1990.

But the social studies drop in third grade doesn't fit the expectations local and state officials have.

"There isn't one thing we can put our finger on," Altoff said. "It's all speculative at this point."

Mark Moody, an assistant superintendent at the State Department of Education, said officials there already have looked for flaws in the test. So far, they haven't found any.

"Two-thirds of the test comes from previous tests," Moody said.

They called Altoff and other social studies specialists from local school systems to a meeting last week to deduce the reason for the drop in scores. Moody had wondered whether, for example, it was in the timing of when social studies units were taught.

But Altoff said the specialists came up with no obvious cause. There were no significant changes in curriculum or timing.

State officials will look further at the actual test questions, she said, and Carroll school officials will go on as planned to have more activities in all grades that mirror the style of MSPAP tests.

"The one thing we haven't done a lot of in the past, and won't do a lot of in the future, is practice tests," Altoff said. "I don't see that as productive."

The "assessment activities" that local teachers write into the curriculum are multipage tests that give students a theme. For example, such a test given in an Eldersburg fifth-grade classroom, after a unit on explorers, required each student to create a portfolio as if he or she were an explorer. The students had to map a course to sail and present a case for why the trip was worthy of investors.

Such exercises require students to write several paragraphs, draw maps, make calculations, and integrate different skills to solve a series of problems.

Another mysterious trend showed up in the report cards released last week for each school district. There was a slight decrease in the percentage of students who pass the state citizenship test by their freshman and junior years. Again, the trend was seen both statewide and in Carroll.

So far, Altoff said, there doesn't seem to be a connection to the third-grade social studies scores. The citizenship tests are different kinds of tests from the MSPAP tests. However, the results are released at the same time in the state report card. Also, the fifth- and eighth-grade social studies scores are continuing an upward trend.

The reason for the drop in citizenship test scores might be that the test is all memorization, while the daily instruction and testing most students are getting has been reoriented toward problem solving.

The drop came despite attempts in the last few years to improve, with special training for ninth-grade social studies teachers, a rewritten review guide for students and after-school help for those who don't pass it the first time.

"All of the things we are doing should have a positive impact, and they don't," Altoff said.

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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