Baltimore County's younger pupils continued to make steady gains on national standardized tests for reading and mathematics during the 1999-2000 school year, with scores sliding only slightly among first-grade readers.
County school officials said the test results, released yesterday, were continuing proof that programs - including phonics-based reading instruction - were working and, at most, needed tweaking to continue a trend of rising scores.
Among second-graders, 89 percent of pupils scored at or above grade level in reading, compared with 87 percent last year and 85 percent in 1998. The results in math were even better: 89 percent were at or above grade level in 2000, compared with 83 percent in 1999 and 80 percent the year before.
First-grade reading scores were the only ones to see a small decline - 87 percent this year were at or above grade level, compared with 88 percent the year before - although the numbers were higher than in 1997.
The scores also showed little movement in closing the gap between white and African-American achievement in reading, although gains were made in second-grade math by African-Americans and the disparity is significantly less than it was in 1997, school officials said.
"The data show from year to year that it's a solid [reading] program," said Ronald S. Thomas, assistant to the superintendent for educational accountability. The first-grade scores "will turn around," he said.
The county schools released the results, which also included school system-based testing for kindergartners and for first-grade math, days before the start of school for the 2000-2001 year and days after new Superintendent Joe A. Hairston outlined his "key strategies" and goals for the system.
Among Hairston's goals is making certain all students score at or above grade level in reading and math.
The scores show that the reading program, called word-identification, continues to work for students, said Christine M. Johns, the system's deputy superintendent.
Moving the remaining students up to grade level will take "focus" and additional support and testing, she said. "The real challenge ahead is to be able to continue to push these youngsters and continue to maintain the grade level as they progress through the system."
Although the systemwide percentage point gains in reading have become smaller in the past few years, Thomas said, "any movement is significant movement," particularly when 8,000 students are being tested at each grade level.
The schools' scores remain far above the national norms. Across the country, 77 percent of second-graders were at or above grade level in reading and math.
Baltimore City and Howard County previously released their 1999-2000 test scores. The city marked significant improvement across grade levels in math and reading. Howard County's numbers improved, as well.
In Baltimore County, second-graders were given the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills in the spring; first-graders took the Gates-MacGinitie tests for reading. The school system plans to switch to the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills for first-graders during the next school year so that assessment and test results are more uniform, Thomas said.
Kindergarten reading and first-grade math were assessed, but with schools-based checklists as opposed to national tests. Ninety-three percent of kindergarten pupils were shown to be "independent or progressing" in reading, compared with 91 percent last year.
Throughout the system's 102 elementary schools, scores varied widely. Although some, such as Norwood Elementary, have had large reading increases since 1997, others, such as Hernwood and Victory Villa, have seen significant drops in their reading scores.
Harry C. Walker, Norwood's principal, said his school's scores - 94 percent at or above grade level for reading in second grade and 96 percent in first - were no surprise. The school assesses pupils regularly and has programs to reduce class sizes for reading, as well as reading tutorials.
At Victory Villa, reading scores decreased from 81 percent to 67 percent among first-graders and from 82 percent to 69 percent for second-graders.
Kathy East, the principal, said that the scores are "disappointing" but that school officials are looking at their reading program and implementing an outreach program for reading and writing.