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8th-grade reading tests remain worry for Maryland educators No growth in scores in 6 years; a quarter can read satisfactorily


If the reading test results from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program were set to music, the eighth note would be sour.

Third- and fifth-grade MSPAP scores continue a steady, if not spectacular, climb. But the program's annual report card released Tuesday shows barely a quarter of the state's eighth-graders read at a satisfactory level. And eighth-grade test scores have shown no growth since MSPAP began reporting school-by-school results six years ago.

"Eighth-grade reading scores are barely moving," said a disappointed Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "We have a whole lot of work to do."

Grasmick has appointed a task force to examine the problem and report back next fall, but local school officials already are increasing reading instruction in middle schools and insisting that reading be divorced from "English" and more strongly emphasized.

"We haven't given [middle-school reading] the attention it should be getting," said Michael E. Hickey, Howard County school superintendent. Although Howard continues to lead the state in MSPAP results, the district's eighth-grade reading scores have declined 10 percentage points in two years.

Howard requires reading classes in all three middle grades; formerly, only sixth-graders had to take reading instruction.

Experts attribute the eighth-grade falloff -- seen across the country -- to several factors, ranging from roiling adolescent hormones, to shallow middle-school curriculum, to the lack of teacher training in reading instruction.

"The character of the American middle school is as much to blame as anything else," said William Moloney, former Calvert County superintendent and now commissioner of education in Colorado.

"We take kids from a small, intimate, friendly and controlled learning environment and propel them into a large, impersonal ,, environment where the pupil-teacher ratio expands very quickly, where a teacher might have to deal with 200 kids in a day."

"Achievement starts to decline right away in the sixth grade, and by the 12th grade the gap has become a canyon."

In such surroundings, Moloney said, motivation to do well on tests like MSPAP quickly begins to evaporate.

"The more popular the Simpsons on TV, the less motivation on the eighth-grade tests," said Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an organization of Southern and Border states devoted to improving public schools.

"I'm partly serious about that. We've polled kids taking NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress], and the fourth-graders, love their little hearts, are highly motivated. Over 40 percent of the eighth-graders say it's not important. They blow it off."

Mirror of other tests

Although MSPAP is not viewed by experts as a highly accurate measure of reading ability, its results mirror those on several other achievement tests, including NAEP.

Reading takes a back seat to other subjects in middle schools. By the eighth grade, reading has disappeared from the curriculum as a separate subject and has been folded into "English" or "language arts" classes often taught by teachers unprepared to teach the first "R."

"It's always a problem getting teachers who can zero in on reading, who know what they're doing," said Craig Spilman, principal of Canton Middle School in Baltimore.

Spilman suffered an attack of the eighth-grade virus this week. On the day he was praised at a city school board meeting for good reading scores in 1997, the state released the 1998 MSPAP report card showing a decline at Canton.

The same thing happened to Caroline County Superintendent R. Allan Gorsuch, who got a $44,500 reward from the state a few weeks ago for last year's good scores at Lockerman Middle School in Denton. This year, Lockerman took a MSPAP tumble.

"This isn't one of my better days," said Gorsuch.

Combine elementary, middle

Spilman and Moloney are among those educators who believe a single school for elementary and middle-school ages fosters student achievement. (The kindergarten to eighth grade model has been practiced for decades in Catholic parochial schools.)

"The whole notion of the middle school revolves around the fallacious idea that we need a special environment for this special age group," said Moloney. "So we segregate these hormone-infused kids and put them in 43-minute classes, between which they can pause for a fight in the hallway."

The picture is not uniformly bleak. Although many of these factors may play a role in dragging down middle-school reading test results, good teaching and school leadership might overcome the negatives.

For example, Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School in Southwest Baltimore scored well in reading and writing in this year's MSPAP.

One of the schools on the state's school failure list, Morrell Park poured all the resources it could muster into reading, training teachers to teach reading and focusing all classes on literacy.

The result: a 10 percentage-point increase in the school's 1998 MSPAP composite score, including an increase on the eighth-grade reading test of almost 6 percentage points.

"We had some great teaching, and we had teachers who simply insisted that students get their work done," said Assistant Principal Will McKenna. "We also just kept our focus on reading for the entire year."

One year does not make a trend, as Spilman and Gorsuch discovered, but there is some evidence that, with effort, the eighth-grade note can be on key.

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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