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Scores soared after struggling students didn't take state test

By Ryan Bagwell

A dramatic boost in state test scores was fueled by a new policy that kept about 1,600 struggling county students from taking a social studies test in the spring, school officials said yesterday.

That revelation led some testing experts to say the county's High School Assessment results released Monday are misleading.

"You can't believe the result is showing improvement," said Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based watchdog group. "It may help some of the kids. It may harm some of the kids."

The assessment tests are given every spring in algebra, English, social studies and science. This year's freshmen and sophomores must pass each exam to graduate.

Students historically have taken the government exam after they take the government class in their freshman year. They can take it up to three times a year if they fail.

But a quarter of last year's ninth-grade class started a new remedial social studies track that forced them to put off the government exam until 10th grade or later.

The initiative was developed under former superintendent Eric J. Smith and pushed the 74,000-student Anne Arundel school system to have the highest passing rate on the exam among the state's five-largest counties. It jumped nearly 20 points to 86.4 percent.

Throughout the state, only Carroll County's 28,000-student school system had a higher passing rate: 87.4.

Terry Poisson, the school district's coordinator of social studies, said 14 percent of last year's ninth-graders who struggled with middle school math and reading had their science and social studies classes replaced with remedial help. And another 11 percent were put in a U.S. History class that infused reading practice in the social studies curriculum.

"If you can't read well, you're not going to be successful on any of the HSA courses," Ms. Poisson said.

School officials insist the sharp rise in government scores is cause for celebration, and the double-digit increase isn't misleading. They also said the new course sequence was only a way to get kids more help to pass tests required for graduation.

But some activists said it's further evidence that the emphasis on test scores spurred by the signing of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 is turning educators' attention away from real learning.

"The eye is on the test scores because that's what the government is demanding," said Anne Garrison, a Riva parent and a member of the county's Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education. "Whether their hearts and souls are in it is another thing."

The idea of keeping struggling students from taking a state test isn't unique to Anne Arundel. Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said giving kids more time to take the test has caught on in a number of counties.

Prince George's County split its math class into algebra A and B to give some struggling students more help, he said, an 'innovative' move state officials encourage. Washington and Queen Anne's counties also have used the strategy.

"Different kids have different learning styles, and if this is one way to help them, then we do support them," Mr. Reinhard said, adding the state doesn't think of Anne Arundel's initiative as "prettying the numbers."

Dr. Neil acknowledged new course sequences like Anne Arundel's could help kids. But "what would be inappropriate to conclude is that kids overall have learned more based on that 20 percent gain," he said.

Ms. Poisson expects a slight increase in the percentage of kids who pass the government exam in 2007 with the new course sequence.

But in 2008, "I predict we'll have to work very hard to maintain the status quo," she said.

— Ryan Bagwell
The Capital


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