Taking MSPAP to new heights Howard school 1 of 2 to be rated excellent


When Principal John C. Morningstar of Ellicott City's Manor Woods Elementary got his school's MSPAP scores -- a month before they became public -- it was all he could do to keep the secret from his students and staff.

The big news was that Manor Woods' fifth-graders had made history: More than 70 percent scored satisfactory in each of six subject areas of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test, which won the school a rating of excellent from the state.

Statewide this year, the school was one of two to reach that level -- which had never been reached by any school -- and the only one in the Baltimore area.

"This was a thrill," said Morningstar, who celebrated the results with students and staff members Friday, when the MSPAP results were made public.

"We were not surprised we did well, but we were surprised the scores were as good as they were. We know where our kids are. We did expect our scores to be relatively good."

The MSPAP is an annual test used by the state to judge how well schools are educating their students. It tests third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in reading, mathematics, social studies, writing, science and language use.

Of the 1,018 middle and elementary schools that took the MSPAP last school year, 52 were rated satisfactory. Each school met the 70 percent goal when the six tests were averaged, said Mark Moody, who is in charge of the MSPAP for the state Department of Education. In 1993, the first year the MSPAP test was administered, 11 were rated satisfactory, he said.

By 2000, state school officials want all schools to achieve the excellent rating that Manor Woods and Somerset Elementary School in Montgomery County earned this year.

"We really have the expectation that all schools can do it, and we're happy more schools are getting into this arena," Moody said. "Half of the schools in the state are within striking distance of achieving satisfactory. They're approaching this barrier."

Last year's Manor Woods' fifth-graders -- who now attend Manor Woods and Burleigh Manor middle schools -- scored an average of 79.1 on the test. They scored 72.7 in reading, 71.6 in writing, 82.4 in language use, 83.0 in math, 80.7 in science and 84.1 in social studies.

"We were shocked," said Debbie Miller, the school's reading specialist. "I mean, this was really, really great."

Morningstar and his staff credited an intensive program that focuses on reading and writing. Four times a year, the staff tests students in those areas. Each student's work is reviewed in detail by each grade level's teachers.

The information is compiled, and students' progress is charted from one quarter to the next.

"We look at 'What are the implications for instruction?' " said Miller. "Every quarter, we want to know what these assessments can tell us about how each student is doing. If they're not doing what we think they could, we focus on that and figure out what to do better."

Focusing on tests

Morningstar said, "Our students have become very proficient at performance-based tests. That's what we focus on."

The emphasis on reading starts early. Kindergartners receive reading instruction -- three students to a tutor -- several times a week. First-graders who need it get one-on-one reading instruction.

The reading program is one part of the work done by a school improvement team of about 25 parents, teachers and staff members -- including instructional assistants and the school secretary -- that meets weekly. The team compiled a strategy that includes such details as lists of spelling words and outlines of historic events that students should know at each grade level.

"Every activity at the school in some way relates to our school improvement plan," Morningstar said. "Everything is instructional. Everything we do we try to gear somehow to be part of that master plan."

Other factors also are likely contributors to Manor Woods' scores:

When the school opened 3 1/2 years ago, Morningstar, a longtime Howard County educator, picked his staff -- which includes such specialists as Miller, who has a doctorate in reading -- and devised an instruction plan from the ground up.

The school administration and staff members communicate frequently and volunteer extra time to tutor students in reading.

The school has about 25 parent volunteers, each of whom spends several hours a week at the school.

The students are relatively affluent and socioeconomically homogenous. School discipline problems are minimal. Turnover is 4 percent, compared with the 25 percent state average.

Manor Woods is in a quiet, rural area on the western edge of Ellicott City where housing developments of large homes on 3-acre lots increasingly dot the landscape.

Affluence and stability

Such affluence and stability are also typical among families of children at Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase, where third- and fifth-graders also achieved the excellent rating on the MSPAP last school year, said Principal Ray Myrtle.

"That doesn't surprise me," Moody said. "You have to look at where they were starting from and where they've gone. These schools are going to do a little better. They don't have as far to move, and we'd expect them to be up there first."

Leslie Wilson, head of testing for the Howard school system, said, "Because of the affluence, it would be easy to write off these results as biased. But that's not the case. What this shows is that these standards can be achieved. That's what's important here."

Friday, when the results were officially released, students and staff members at Manor Woods threw a party with a huge cake and golf shirts for the staff.

They will send letters to the students who were fifth-graders last year to let them know how well they did. And they will have another school rally Friday to celebrate again.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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