Schools investigate sharp drop in third-grade reading scores; Overall MSPAP results show little change


Belle Grove Elementary Principal Donald Wagoner found the bad news on the first line in the right-hand column of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test report.

It was devastating -- only 13.2 percent of his third-graders performed satisfactorily on the reading portion of the annual test last year. Why, he wondered. His school has good teachers and eager pupils. For six years, he worked to get an updated computer lab and involve parents in their children's education.

What went wrong?

"If I knew the answer to that ," Wagoner said, his voice trailing off.

Belle Grove, a small school in a working-class neighborhood in the northern tip of the county near Baltimore City, was one of three elementary schools that experienced a drop of more than 20 percentage points in one year in third-grade reading scores.

Its 24.7 percentage point drop from 1997 to 1998 was the second-largest in the county. Rolling Knolls Elementary School in Annapolis had the largest drop, from 77.1 percent of third-graders performing satisfactorily on the reading portion of the test in 1997 to 41 percent in 1998. Third-grade reading scores at Meade Heights Elementary on Fort Meade dropped 22.9 percentage points.

While teachers, principals and even real estate agents use MSPAP test scores to judge a school, top educators warn that low scores in reading do not equal ineffective teaching or illiterate pupils, and statisticians warn that big drops in any year in one subject are not significant.

The MSPAP "composite index" -- the average score from all six sections of the test -- gives a more accurate picture of school success, said Mark Moody, state assistant superintendent of testing.

"I liken it to a grade-point average," he said.

Belle Grove's composite score has remained steady during the four years the test has been given; 34.9 percent of pupils performed satisfactorily on MSPAP in 1997 and 34 percent last year.

If parents want to know how their children's reading skills compare with those of their peers, they should look at the results of Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS), taken in the second and fourth grade, Moody said. Belle Grove is in the 48th percentile, just below the average of 50 percent.

Wagoner and reading resource teacher Susan Barrie have designed a three-pronged attack that involves parents as guest readers, small-group tutoring, and writing exercises in which children will develop main ideas and topic sentences, keys to reading comprehension.

"This could have just been a bad year for reading," Wagoner said. "But it's not like we are just going to let it drop."

Teachers and Principal Scott L. Doran at Meade Heights Elementary School are also responding by putting struggling readers into small reading groups and tutoring. In contrast to the third-grade score, the school's composite score has increased from 38.5 percent of pupils performing satisfactorily on the test in 1997 to 45.5 percent last year. Second-grade reading scores on the CTBS rose from 51.7 percent in 1997 to 58.2 percent last year.

Meade Heights scores are affected by its location on a military base, where pupil turnover is high. Teachers must tailor the curriculum to suit children who come from schools in Japan or Germany, for example, Lele Demestihas, the reading resource teacher, said.

"Often we get kids from other states, and the parents will say, 'This is not the kind of work they had to do at their old school,' " Doran said.

At Rolling Knolls Elementary, where the composite score of 58.2 percent is higher than the county and state average, Principal Patricia Campbell said that she did not know why the third-grade reading scores had dropped and that the improvement team is looking into what had happened.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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