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Third-graders lead rise in city school test scores Progress could mark first results of reforms


For the first time in four years, Baltimore City showed real progress on the statewide tests of school performance, giving ,, school officials the first hint that a reform effort may be producing results.

The city's third-graders were its stars. They raised their test scores by 5 percentage points for reading and writing and equaled a statewide increase in reading among third-graders.

"The third-grade scores in Baltimore City have taken an important upward climb," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "They are the highest gains for the city in the history of these tests."

The test was begun five years ago.

Improvement was seen throughout the city, from the worst schools to the best. More than 70 percent of city schools improved their scores. And in a dozen elementary schools, the percentage of students performing satisfactorily the test doubled or tripled.

Fifth-grade and eighth-grade scores improved as well, although eighth-graders showed only a tiny gain.

Even so, Baltimore's students are still lagging far behind their peers in surrounding counties. Overall, only 16 percent of the city's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders performed satisfactorily on the tests, compared with 44 percent statewide.

Only two city schools matched the statewide average, Mount Washington Elementary and Midtown Academy, a school started a group of parents last year. And the city's overall score increased by only 2.2 percent.

At that rate, the school system would take decades to catch up to other systems in the state.

That didn't stop celebrations. At Midtown Academy, a group of parents and teachers cheered for several minutes after hearing that their school had the best overall score in the city.

"It has been just so much hard work. It is just so great," said Wendy Samet, one of the founders of the school, which has a high percentage of poor students.

The tests, known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, are the centerpiece of a statewide reform program started in 1990.

Given to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders every spring since 1993, they gauge progress in reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and language usage.

Two elementary schools The Sun followed last year, Lyndhurst and City Springs, improved their scores. City Springs' score rose from 6.5 percent of students scoring satisfactorily in 1997 to 12 percent. Lyndhurst's score went up about 3 points to 13.3 percent.

If city school board members are looking for evidence that their reform efforts are working, they can find it in the test results.

In its first year, the school board decided to focus its money and energy on improving teaching in the early grades. It reduced class size in the first three grades, instituted after-school academies at many schools and beefed up teacher salaries and training.

This past summer, the city retrained all its elementary school teachers to use phonics to teach reading and bought two new text book series, Open Court and Houghton Mifflin.

"Clearly we have a long ways to go, but I am delighted in the progress," said C. William Struever, who as a member of the city school board played a key role in improving instruction. "You can see the payoff with our efforts in the early grades."

A number of principals said they believe that lowering class size and offering after-school help to students raised test scores.

For instance, 56 percent of Mount Royal Elementary's third-grade class earned satisfactory scores on the MSPAP -- the highest third-grade percentage in the city. That was up more than 20 percentage points over last year.

Barry Williams, the area executive officer for mid-city schools, said Mount Royal's principal put a lot of emphasis on getting classes down to about 20 students.

Liberty Elementary wasn't a high-scoring school, but it might give school officials a reason for optimism. Serendipitously, three years ago, the principal led an effort to get back to basics, adopting most of the reforms that the school board voted for last year.

Principal Linda Chinnia put the Open Court textbooks in all grades, reduced class size, began an afternoon academy and spent a lot of time on teacher training. She created small %J transitional classes for students who were failing but might have been passed on to the next grade in another school.

"I moved toward looking for teachers who were committed and who weren't afraid of long hours," Chinnia said.

Liberty has been among the poorest-performing schools in the city. In 1997, only 5 percent of its students passed the MSPAP. Last school year, that figure nearly tripled.

The school's scores on national standardized tests also rose significantly.

"The children are learning how to read and they are not just word calling," Chinnia said. "The children look pleased. They are happy. They feel successful."

Not all schools fared well. Scores dipped at some of the city's best, such as Roland Park Elementary and Canton Middle School.

"Over time, we've taken real difficult groups of children and had great progress," said Craig Spilman, principal at Canton Middle. "How has the school done in the last five years? That's what you should look at."

Similar citywide progress was not shown on the national standardized tests taken last spring. School officials could not explain the discrepancy, except that city schools are teaching skills that are tested on the MSPAP tests and perhaps not those on the standardized test.

And Zelda Holcomb, who heads the schools testing program, said that, in essence, the tests are sending similar messages: "We are still not anywhere close to where we want to be."

Unlike traditional standardized tests with multiple-choice answers, MSPAP is 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 on all six tests by 2000.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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