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Improving test scores hailed as turnaround

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's first- through fifth-graders have scored significant gains on national reading and math tests for the second straight year, marking what officials called yesterday a turnaround of the system's troubled elementary schools.

First-graders did best, with the majority scoring above the national average in both subjects for the first time in at least a decade.

Jubilant school officials celebrated the results of the latest Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills at school system headquarters on North Avenue. Including more modest gains in tests three years ago, officials said, progress appears to be the norm among what once were woefully inadequate schools.

"Now that we have posted gains for three years in a row, I have faith that this is a turnaround," said Betty Morgan, chief academic officer.

School officials will turn their attention Tuesday to middle schools, promising to release CTBS scores for sixth- and seventh-graders, and to unveil a comprehensive reform plan. Many of the middle schools are performing poorly.

The three-year test score improvements are impressive.

In 1998, 29 percent of city first-graders read at or above the national average for their grade. This year, 56 percent do. In math, the percentage of first-graders at or above grade level has risen from 30 percent in 1998 to 52 percent this spring.

The improvement occurs four years after the state and the city formed a partnership, marked by tens of millions of dollars in new state funding, to reform what leaders had dubbed an "academically bankrupt" system.

School board members earmarked much of that funding for elementary school reforms: reducing class size, buying new textbooks, adopting a citywide curriculum and retraining teachers in reading and math.

The board also set passing standards, refusing to promote students to the next grade if they weren't reading at grade level, and offered summer school and after-school programs for those who were failing.

For the educators and school board members gathered yesterday at North Avenue headquarters, the results bolstered their belief that even children from the toughest neighborhoods can succeed.

Carmen V. Russo, the school system's chief executive officer, praised pupils' hard work and said there is a "new, dynamic culture of 'can-do' that's taking hold" in the city.

"It just proves when you set a bar, our children are very, very capable of reaching that bar," she said.

About half of the city elementary schools, 58 of 117, increased their first-grade reading scores, while 33 schools slipped and 26 stayed the same. In first-grade math, 79 schools, a little more than two-thirds, increased their scores, while 35 slipped and three stayed the same.

Focus on kindergarten

The sharp rise in first-grade scores is a result of the new emphasis on programs for 4- and 5-year-olds, school officials said. The city has expanded the kindergartners' school day from half-day to all-day and has started half-day pre-kindergarten programs in some schools.

Not only did first-graders make great gains, but so did children in all grades in math and reading. The percentage of fifth-graders reading at or above the national average has risen from 18 percent in 1998 to 41 percent this year.

"It really gets down to setting standards and sticking to them, which the city has done," said Elizabeth L. Turner, principal at Tench Tilghman Elementary, where scores have risen for the past three years.

"People looked for results overnight," she said. "You don't see results overnight, but you do see results if you have a continual, strong program that you maintain the standards for."

Twenty-five schools scored above the national average in reading in at least three grades. At three schools - Mount Washington Elementary, Roland Park Elementary-Middle and Woodhome Elementary-Middle - children in every grade scored above the national average in reading and math.

Mark Moody, assistant state superintendent for assessment, said the trend is clear.

"What we have is three years of steady growth, and that's very good evidence that the reforms are taking hold," he said. "By now, you have to say something systematic is going on."

Steven Ferrara, a specialist at Washington-based American Institutes for Research, was more cautious.

"I think it is encouraging news, but I don't want to start jumping up and down until I see a trend continue," he said.

Using the new results, local officials are evaluating the success of several phonics-based reform models in elementary schools. Morgan, the chief academic officer, said such reading programs seem to produce good results if they are followed consistently and taught well.

Christopher J. Doherty, executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which oversees the Direct Instruction curriculum in 17 city schools, called it a "breakthrough year" for the five schools that have been using the program since 1996. Those schools exceeded the city's average by 5 to 15 percentile points.

"The 'DI originals' as a group are a solid, solid group," Doherty said. "It's going to take this long, especially with really broken schools."

Bonnie Holmes, assistant principal at William Pinderhughes Elementary in West Baltimore, which had the highest first-grade reading score in the city, credited the gains at her school to the highly structured, phonics-based programs of Direct Instruction.

First-graders at William Pinderhughes scored in the 92nd percentile nationally in reading, up from the 42nd percentile last year, and in the 89th percentile in math, up from the 52nd percentile the year before. Math scores have risen 80 points in three years.

City Springs Elementary, another Direct Instruction school, also posted significant gains in every grade in reading and in every grade but first in math.

Schools that have used the Achievement First model for nearly three years also slightly exceeded the city's averages on the CTBS. That program, created by the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, emphasizes training of teachers in their classrooms and support for principals.

First-grade reading scores at Tench Tilghman, one of 28 Achievement First schools, jumped 34 percentile points this year. Turner, the principal, attributed the improvement to strong pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs, and to the phonics-based Open Court reading program.

Officials had been monitoring several schools that posted large gains last year to see whether they maintained their momentum. For the most part, they seem to have.

First-graders at Pimlico and Thomas Johnson elementaries scored in the 82nd percentile for reading, as they did last year.

Pimlico, which last year became the first Baltimore school to be removed from the state's failing list because of gains on the most recent state exam, slipped slightly in reading in two grades and in math in three grades, but posted gains in several others.

Midtown Academy, a parent-run school in Bolton Hill that was begun in 1997 under the district's New Schools initiative, was one of only four schools in the city where children in all five grades scored above the national average in reading.

Test scores for the three elementaries being privately run by Edison Schools - Furman L. Templeton, Gilmor and Montebello - have not been released.

Dwight D. Jones, vice president for operations at Edison, said the New York-based company is compiling the results, which will provide the first data-based indication of whether the state's high-stakes experiment in privatization is paying off.

Because Baltimore is one of the first school districts to release the results of this year's CTBS, which is administered across Maryland each spring, comparisons cannot be made yet.

Last year, other jurisdictions also posted gains, some as large as the city's. Statewide, last year's second-grade reading test scores rose 9 points, to the 55th percentile, while math scores rose 10 points, to the 53rd percentile.

Scores fell in 1990s

The rise in scores during the past three years reverses a trend during the 1990s, when scores fluctuated, then fell.

School board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon said the community had stopped believing that the city's children could succeed academically, but he said that that has changed.

"We have in this city highly able students, and all that was needed was for this community to care about them," he said.

School board member Sam Stringfield said the latest CTBS scores are proof that the state's partnership with the city - and the millions of dollars it has meant for the troubled system- has paid off.

"We are seeing the fruit of our years of very hard work. ... We are seeing the wisdom of the state's investment, and if they would send us some more money, they would see an ever greater return on their investment," he said.

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