Baltimore elementary school children scored remarkable gains on reading and mathematics tests this spring, the first clear sign that an expensive, three-year reform effort is working.
Improvement on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills was seen in nearly every one of the city's 122 elementary schools, in nearly all grades, in both math and reading, school officials said.
First-graders scored nearly 20 points higher in reading than they did two years ago: 48.4 percent are now reading at or above the national average for their grade, up from 29.4 percent in the spring of 1998.
While some of the largest increases were seen in the early grades, where the school system has put most of its money, even fifth-graders' reading scores rose. In 1998, 17.7 percent were reading on grade level. This spring 34.5 percent are.
But perhaps the biggest surprise came in math scores. In first grade, scores were up by 11 percentage points over last year.
"These gains are the kind that professional educators hope to see once in a lifetime," said Sam Stringfield, a city school board member and Johns Hopkins University education researcher.
This year's percentage increases on the national standardized test, coupled with more modest improvements last year, are big enough to draw national attention. "These gains are as good, if not better, than we have seen in most urban systems in the last few years," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest school systems. "It is likely to turn heads all across the country."
School officials attributed the success to a variety of common-sense measures that have been put in place in the past three years. The system reduced class size to between 20 and 25 in the youngest grades, bought phonics-based reading textbooks and new math books, trained teachers in a new curriculum and gave struggling students extra help after school.
"It's not magic," said Betty Morgan, the school system's chief academic officer who is credited with having shepherded the changes. "It's old-fashioned good teaching with high expectations ... and a strong focus on teaching and learning."
Morgan attributed the improved performance to the hard work of the system's teachers, principals and students.
The test scores came with a caution. The state has not analyzed all of the city data, and so questions will remain in the minds of testing experts until a full accounting can be made of the increases.
But school chief Robert Booker was confident enough yesterday to celebrate in bright sunshine on the steps of the North Avenue headquarters with Mayor Martin O'Malley, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, City Council members, state legislators and schoolchildren.
"Wow! I think I can safely say that in nine years of serving in city government this is the most fantastic news we have heard about our school system," O'Malley said.
The test scores still fall below the state and national averages, but for a city grown used to expecting failure from each new experiment in education that came along in the past decade, the news that its children are closing the gap was a joyful surprise.
"I have labored a long time for this moment," said Grasmick. "I hope this will signal an important step forward in confidence in the system."
She hopes that as the improvement continues, families will begin returning their children to the public schools, Grasmick added.
Officials said the results proved that school children in Baltimore are as bright and competitive as any in the country.
Baltimore is the first school system in Maryland to report its scores on the CTBS this year, so the scores cannot be compared to others around the state.
Last year second-graders across the state scored at the 46th national percentile in reading and in the 43rd percentile in math.
First look at data
What the school system reported yesterday was a first look at the data. Stringfield said the gains are some of the largest he has seen in his 25 years of working with urban school systems. In Sacramento, Calif., students using the same phonics-based reading series as in Baltimore posted similar gains last year, although on a different standardized test.
In reading, citywide scores increased significantly in every grade but fourth. Fifth-grade scores had the largest one-year gain, followed by third grade. Morgan attributed those jumps to a directive to principals to put their strongest teachers in third and fifth grades, the two grades that are tested each May under the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
School officials found reassuring news below the surface of the data: the number of lowest achieving students diminished significantly, while the number of top performers has grown.
In five city schools, more than 50 percent of students in every grade scored above the national average in reading. The five schools were Woodhome, Mount Washington, Pimlico, Roland Park and Hamilton elementaries. In three schools, Cherry Hill, Hampden and Thomas Johnson, 50 percent or more of the students scored above grade level in four of five grades.
Pimlico Elementary, located in a drug corridor, was one of the city's strongest performers. More than 50 percent of students in every grade scored on or above grade level in math and reading.
Large gains were seen in many other formerly low-achieving schools as well.
Pride at Cherry Hill
An exultant Yvonne D. Jones, principal of Cherry Hill Elementary in South Baltimore, pointed with pride to the gains her children made. The average first-grader at the school scored in the 75th percentile nationwide in reading, more than doubling last year's results, and in the 77th percentile in math.
"Tell me if I smile too much," she said. Even as she rejoiced over the high test scores, however, she made clear that they were just the beginning."We're relentless here," she said.
"We're not satisfied yet. We take this to move on, and we want to do even better next year."
Jones credited Cherry Hill's teachers, the new, heavily phonics-based Open Court reading series and the three-hour daily reading program. Children spend every morning reading aloud, practicing phonics, writing in their journals and working together in small groups.
Teacher Jeff Ohmer, 24, recalled that his kindergarten pupils barely knew the alphabet in their first weeks of school. Now, he is teaching the same class in first grade, and the pupils love to read.
"I had kids coming in who didn't know letters. This year, I'm watching them pick up any book and they can read," he said. "Many of my kids are reading above grade level. It's fantastic."
The principal and teacher said they have high standards - and high expectations - for the children. Most of Cherry Hill's pupils come from poor homes, but at the school they are expected to learn just as well as children from well-to-do families in the suburbs.
"We try to create an environment for learning," Jones said. "Despite what may be on the outside, when they're here, we work very hard to prove that every child can learn. We have very high expectations, and we let our children know that."
Several teachers, principals and school officials believe that much of the improvement is due to putting good, up-to-date textbooks in every child's hands and to training teachers to teach from them. Before 1998, every elementary school in the city could choose its own approach to teaching reading .
The city began implementing a new math curriculum several years ago and last year the city purchased textbooks. "For the first time in 12 years, we put high-quality materials in every child's hands and a textbook they can take home," said Andrea Bowden, who supervises math instruction. In addition, she said, hundreds of elementary teachers have received additional training.
At Dallas Nicholas Elementary School, Principal Irma Johnson said nearly identical words. "For the first time we had all the materials we need to teach," she said.
Dallas Nicholas was proof that some basic new practices can make a difference. The school's teaching staff is very stable and has changed little in the past several years. Johnson was an assistant principal at the school before taking over two years ago.
She has no fancy new computers, hasn't gotten an infusion of new money and has worked with the basic city curriculum and textbooks. She has no librarian, no physical education teacher, no art teacher and a music teacher only two days a week.
"I have done what I can with the resources I have," she said. She has put enormous effort into improving classroom teaching, giving her staff more time to plan together and more training in the school.
The result? Test scores have soared.
While the pace of improvement has seemed achingly slow to city school officials, principals and classroom teachers, it is in fact very much on target, according to Casserly, of the Council of Great City Schools.
"When reforms are working, as they clearly are in Baltimore, you will see gains in the second, third and fourth year."
Similar increases would be hard to achieve once students are scoring closer to the national norm.
But most teachers, principals and administrators were savoring the victory yesterday rather than worrying what will happen next year.
"We need some victories," said Jeffrey N. Grotsky, executive officer for the central area.
"Urban schools need some victories. It shows our children can learn and our teachers can teach."
Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.