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New Curriculum Gets Credit in Maryland Test Gains

Ohanian Comment: Try unpacking the opening sentence. I won't do it as I fear it would drive me mad. Literally.

Who's to blame for such a statement:
a) testing experts and state officials
b) reporters
c) all of the above

Quote in need of translation:

"We were able to determine how much of a certain skill we needed to teach."
--Rachael Slacum, principal.

I vote teaching 40% of paragraphing, 34% of quotation marks, 2.37% of apostrophes.

Solid gains in test scores across Maryland this year were to be expected as teachers and principals adjusted their instruction to cover material on the new reading and math tests, according to testing experts and state officials.

The results, released Tuesday, were better than expected, though, and state education officials credit the use of a new curriculum with some of the increase.

"The first year a test is introduced, [the scores] are the lowest they will be, and then there is a steady progression each year," said Ron Dietel, a spokesman for the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Maryland gave the federally required test, called the Maryland School Assessment, in grades three, five, eight and 10 in February. It was the second year those grades took the test. Grades two, four, six and seven took the test for the first time then, but the results will not be released until August.

The test will be used to determine whether a school has met federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, an initiative of the Bush administration.

"The test scores generally move up the first four to five years, and then they level off and begin to decline," Dietel said.

Such was the case with the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- which was started about a decade ago. Many schools made large increases in the first few years, but progress was beginning to drop off by 2002, the last year the test was given.

Once teachers see a test and the format, Dietel said, it begins to guide their instruction.

That did happen in at least one school in Baltimore, where teachers analyzed the first-year results and adjusted instruction, said Jason Botel, principal of KIPP Ujima Village Academy.

"Our fifth-grade math teacher has worked very hard to see what our deficits are," Botel said.

The teacher began filling in those gaps and collaborated with the science teacher to include the math standards in science instruction, Botel said. KIPP had the best fifth-grade test scores in the city, rising from 64 percent passing last year to 89.2 percent this year.

The school had 51.8 percent of its fifth-graders pass the reading test, just above the city average but below the state average.

Using the curriculum

Maryland's positive results might have been enhanced by a curriculum available for the first time in the 2002-2003 school year. Instead of writing a curriculum for each subject, many school systems have taken the state's new curriculum and used it to help guide what is taught.

"I think [the test results] exceeded our expectations by a good bit," said Ronald Peiffer, deputy state superintendent for academic policy. "Probably had we not had the voluntary state curriculum in place we would not have had gains on this scale."

For instance, North Glen Elementary in Anne Arundel County tried to make what was taught in class correlate more closely to what would be on the test, its principal said.

"Our curriculum was much more focused on what the [state] standards were," said Principal Maurine Larkin, who acknowledged being surprised by how much the Glen Burnie school's math scores jumped.

The number of third-graders and fifth-graders who passed the math test nearly doubled from last year, to 90 percent and 81 percent, respectively.

Anne Arundel County Superintendent Eric J. Smith said the state's curriculum helped, with administrators using it to develop day-to-day instruction guides that were distributed to teachers across the county in an effort to ensure that all students covered the material suggested by the state.

'Schools get it done'

"When there's real laser-focus about what needs to be taught, the schools get it done," he said.

Smith disagreed with the notion that schools did better this year because they have had a year of the MSA under their belt.

"I don't think it makes that much of a difference," he said. "You cannot make the kinds of gains some of these schools made by teaching to a test. That's not going to give you the double-digit gains."

Several of Howard County's lowest-performing elementary schools made significant improvements, and administrators attribute it to curriculum changes, individualized attention and hardworking staff.

At Talbott Springs Elementary, 73.3 percent of fifth-graders -- more than double last year's number -- passed the test.

Nearly 90 percent of third-graders reached advanced or proficient levels, up more than 35 percentage points from the previous year.

"The good news is they were able to do it," said Portia White, coordinator of testing for Howard schools. "When you're low-performing and you get results back that are not satisfactory, it can be shocking, but in some cases it can be motivating," she said.

Talbott Springs paid sharp attention to Maryland's voluntary curriculum, said Principal Rachael Slacum.

"We were able to determine how much of a certain skill we needed to teach," she said.

White agreed that curriculum was a factor. "There's much effort to make sure that the Howard County curriculum encompasses the voluntary state curriculum and what's going to be tested," she said.

Part of preparing for the test was building students' confidence in themselves. Staff members held rallies and even organized a student cheering group for morning announcements, shouting slogan like "Who rocks the test? The third-graders!"

Next week, the state is expected to announce which of the lowest-performing schools have failed to make enough progress under the federal guidelines. Schools that don't make "adequate yearly progress" could be subject to sanctions.

State officials said they do not expect next year's results to be as positive because state standards are slowly being raised so that all children will have to pass the test by 2014.

— Liz Bowie, Laura Loh and Liz F. Kay
Baltimore Sun


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