State short of its goal, but still proud of schools MSPAP scores rise, but 2000 target seems unlikely to be met


Despite a dismal showing by many eighth-graders, Maryland's public school students continued to climb steadily toward the high marks set for them nine years ago, according to the annual public school report card given out amid great fanfare yesterday.

Even with overall test score gains in 22 of 24 jurisdictions, the state does not appear set to reach its goals by the year 2000, when all schools were to have 70 percent of their students performing satisfactorily on the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests.

Only Howard County topped 60 percent this year and only Howard and Harford counties are projected to come close to the 70 percent mark by the year after next.

"We may adjust the time limits on reaching the goal, but we're not likely to adjust the goal," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who presented the statewide results to more than 200 educators at the Maryland State Department of Education headquarters in Baltimore.

"I like to use an analogy. If you set out to lose 200 pounds and only lose 100, have you failed? No. It's still a great accomplishment," she said.

Accordingly, there was much celebrating as Grasmick announced that 44 percent of the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders are performing at a satisfactory level on the MSPAP tests, given every May. That statewide score -- an average of grades on tests in reading, writing, math, science, social studies and language usage -- rose more than 2 points over last year and was up more than 12 points since 1993, the first year the tests counted.

Unlike traditional standardized tests, MSPAP tests measure not only what students know, but how well they can apply that knowledge. The tests are intended to measure a school's effectiveness, rather than an individual student's abilities.

Baltimore City's scores rose for the first time in four years, though it remained last in the state, with only 16 percent of its students scoring satisfactorily. Garrett and Calvert counties were the only ones to show declines in their test scores.

With just over 60 percent of its students performing satisfactorily, Howard ranked first in the state, as it has since MSPAP began. Harford and Carroll counties were second and third; Baltimore County was eighth, and Anne Arundel tied for 11th.

Even in the high-achieving counties, eighth-grade reading scores slipped. Across the state, only about one-quarter of eighth-graders scored satisfactorily on the reading test.

"We've got to improve reading performance and we've got to look very hard at our middle schools," said Grasmick, who appointed a middle school task force after seeing last year's scores. She also said that the low performance of minority students, especially African-American and Hispanic youngsters, was a problem that continues to show up in the numbers and needs to be remedied.

Overall, state officials found this year's test scores heartening -- signs both of school progress and the effectiveness of the instructional reform program they have pursued despite controversies. "We have persisted and we have prevailed and we shall continue," Grasmick agreed.

In highlighting examples of individual success, Grasmick pointed Allegany County in Western Maryland, which had the second highest point gain this year among the counties. Allegany has also had one of the state's highest gains -- more than 21 percentage points -- since 1993.

"We have high poverty, yet we're doing real well," said Superintendent John O'Connell. "This is a breakthrough year. Every school has something to brag about."

Among them is John Humbird Elementary in South Cumberland, a school with nearly 80 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, said its principal, Robert McKenzie. In 1993, fewer than 10 percent of its students performed satisfactorily on MSPAP; this year, more than 56 percent achieved that score.

"We didn't have any place to go but up," said McKenzie, who credited the growth to additional money through the federal Title I program, a detailed school im-provement plan and dedicated teachers.

While most educators were in high spirits, Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, a man with much to crow about, took a different view.

"In some sense this isn't a totally happy day," he said. "Any of us in the upper group can't feel very good as long as Baltimore City is where it is in the scoring. This is a state school system and a state program of improvement, not one for Harford and Howard. We have to share our best practices with these districts that are lagging."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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