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Aiming for right reading track Tests should show extent of progress, if any, by students

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bryan had crying fits. Kristen didn't recognize her own name. Jerry ran out of the room.

Jasmine cursed the teacher. And Jamie and Darnetta were way, way behind.

These are the children, with many others like them, who worry teachers at City Springs and Lyndhurst as Baltimore schools this week begin citywide assessment tests.

These children have come so far in the past eight months, but will their progress register on a test that is looking for empirical answers? Will these children read as first-graders should?

"Some will do well. Some of them will do average. And some of them just won't do," says Lyndhurst first-grade teacher Betty Pierce, summing up her expectations for her class. "But I'm praying for them all."

The reading portion of the test, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, measures, among other things, a child's ability to recognize words and comprehend short passages. Last fall, for the first time, every elementary school in Baltimore gave its students a diagnostic test. Those fall scores provided teachers a benchmark. Now, for the first time, teachers can look at the spring CTBS scores and say how much students have learned.

Likewise, teachers can measure themselves: How much have they taught?

For the principals at City Springs and Lyndhurst elementary schools, who embarked upon very different courses to raise rock-bottom reading scores, the test scores promise answers to the big question: Are their schools on the right track?

Trying to close gap

"I won't be happy until every child is reading on grade level," says City Springs Principal Bernice Whelchel. She has said it so many times that staffers, familiar with her sentiment, often finish the sentence for her.

City Springs, where no third-graders passed the reading part of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test in 1996, is finishing its second year with the strict, phonics-based Direct Instruction program. The fall diagnostic scores showed its first-graders were about four months behind in September.

Whelchel and supervising teacher Anayezuka Ahidiana believe they have closed that gap. Going into this week's test, they know, by their internal measures, that more children than ever are reading on or above grade level. How these children perform on the standardized test might be another matter.

Different expectations

"Generally what happens with the CTBS, is that our kids score a grade level below where we're teaching them," says Ahidiana. "We teach to a higher level than where they often work when they're on their own. The test scores will reflect where they're working on their own."

For instance, as Ahidiana explains, children just beginning the Reading Mastery III book would be considered to be working in class at a beginning third-grade level, by Direct Instruction standards. However, she would expect them to test at the level they have just completed or a second-grade level -- not at the more difficult level where the material still might be unfamiliar to them.

'Aren't they awesome?'

Two years ago, only five children at City Springs tested above grade level. This year, 33 of the 69 first-graders are doing second-grade work or higher, by Direct Instruction standards.

Even more significant, all but six students, including the 23 children in Robin Shaw's first-grade class who started school so far behind, will finish the year ready for second grade's Reading Mastery II books. "Aren't they awesome?" says Shaw. "It's amazing to think where we started off the year and where we are now."

In September, few children knew their alphabet or even how to stay in their seats. They ran about the room, they threw tantrums -- and sometimes chairs.

It was November before Shaw -- with the help of several others at City Springs -- was able to gain control of the class enough to teach. Even then, she had to begin with things the children should have learned in kindergarten.

"It wasn't smooth sailing at all," Shaw says. "The lower-performing kids would get to a point where they'd just lose it. They wouldn't remember sounds. They obviously weren't firm."

She kept children in the classroom after lunch and during their music and art periods to work on reading. All other lessons -- math, social studies, geography -- took a back seat to reading drills. "If you can't read," Shaw says, "what can you do?"

Helpful game

When the children didn't understand that the letter sounds had to be blended together to make a word -- not uttered separately and haltingly -- she invented a game. "Keep your motor running," she'd tell them as they mimicked idling engines to make their sounds run together. Saaaaaat. Sat. Faaaaaat. Fat.

She tested them, and when they weren't able to do the work, she moved them back a few lessons. When they shot ahead, she moved them forward and regrouped the reading circles. Once the children began working on their proper levels with others of similar ability, Shaw began to see real progress. "It's exciting. It makes me cry sometimes," Shaw says. "Then I kick myself. They're going into second grade. Are they ready, really ready?"

Reason to hope

At Lyndhurst, Principal Elaine Davis is allowing herself to hope that the CTBS scores will rise. She was encouraged by what she saw when her third- and fifth-graders took the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests this month. The children seemed to embrace the test, rather than panic as others have in years past.

As at City Springs, teachers at Lyndhurst have been tuning their lessons to the format of the CTBS test so the children won't be put off by unfamiliar commands. (The test will ask children what letter a word "begins with" or "ends with," and to City Springs children taught only to "sound it out," the command was confusing.)

Both principals, however, know that teaching the language of the test will accomplish only so much. "The key to these tests is reading and comprehension," Davis says. "They've got to be able to read and write to perform well. We think what we're doing in the early grades will get us there."

Staying with whole language

Lyndhurst, which declined to participate in the Direct Instruction program funded by the Abell Foundation, chose to continue using a whole-language-based program to teach its first-graders read, much as the rest of the city has. Its first-graders also were about four months behind in September, according to the diagnostic tests.

Lyndhurst first-grade teacher Pierce has spent much of the year worrying whether her students were just learning to read. With the test coming up, her focus has shifted: Do they understand what they are reading?

She asks them to find the main ideas in the sentences. She asks them to pick out small details. She asks them to draw conclusions about what they've read. After reading a story about monkeys jumping on a bed, the children write letters to "mama monkey," telling her why she should stop: "You could break your ankle. You could hurt your arm. You could break your neck!"

Pierce is confident that her "fantastic six" -- a self-named group of students that has finished five readers and is ahead of the others -- will do well on this week's test. Then there are the others.

The class clown still plays all day. A little girl debilitated by tantrums mostly controls herself now and can read words, but she doesn't seem to have a clue as to what they mean. A little boy whose mother works nights has been catching up on missed sleep in class. Another child has missed a lot of school.

"I can't say for sure if those things are the reason some children aren't learning as fast as they could be," Pierce says. "But I think it has something to do with it. Sometimes, other things do get in the way."

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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