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Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Despite Tough Fiscal Year, Baltimore Students Post Gains on Md. Tests

Despite Tough Fiscal Year, Baltimore Students Post Gains on Md. Tests

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Baltimore public school students made improvements in almost every grade on Maryland’s state tests, despite a tumultuous year in which the system was nearly driven into insolvency and hundreds of central-office workers lost their jobs.

Officials were concerned that academic performance could be affected by the instability caused by a $58 million deficit in the system’s $914 million budget. A dire cash-flow emergency led to a city loan bailout and the dismissal of more than 700 employees. ("City, Not State, to Lend Money to Baltimore Schools," March 17, 2004.)

But results from the Maryland School Assessment showed more than half the 3rd graders in the 90,000-student system scored "proficient" in reading and mathematics, an increase of 15 percentage points in reading and 12 percentage points in math from last year. Of the city’s 5th graders, 49 percent reached proficiency in reading and 43 percent did so in math, a jump of 5 percentage points and 12 percentage points, respectively.

Results of the exam, given to 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th graders in reading and math in February, were announced last month.

"I’m absolutely thrilled," said Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore district’s chief executive officer. "I wildly applaud our teachers and students."

Ms. Copeland credited increased instructional time in reading, as well as more professional development for teachers in the city’s lowest-performing schools, for the improvements. The goal now, she said in an interview, is to provide students with academic and social experiences over the summer to avoid the losses often experienced by students from poor families.

Baltimore school leaders decided in April that they could not run a traditional summer school program because of the district’s financial challenges. The district reached a tentative agreement with Baltimore City Community College to hold summer school on its campus, but after the college’s president resigned in May, the plan fell through.

Instead, about 1,600 high school students will attend four city high schools for summer school and remedial classes. Courses will cost students $150 each. Younger students have been encouraged to sign up with a host of nonprofit, government, and faith-based programs the school system has tapped to provide extracurricular and academic help.

Ronald A. Peiffer, Maryland’s deputy state superintendent for academic policy, said all of the state’s 24 districts showed improvement on the state assessments this year.

He attributed the gains to greater familiarity with the exams, which two years ago replaced the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The old exams evaluated schools, not individual students, and could not be used to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Far to Go

Mr. Peiffer called Baltimore’s gains particularly encouraging. "They had some very difficult situations in which to work this year, with the financial turmoil and the management issues," he said. "They need to be lauded for having made some substantial improvements."

But Baltimore remains the lowest-performing district in the state, he noted, with 32 schools that must be restructured this coming fall under provisions of the federal education law because of several consecutive years of poor performance. Those schools will be subject to management changes and other interventions.

At one Baltimore school targeted for extra help this past school year, the release of the state test scores validated a year of hard work. Eighty-five percent of the students at Baybrook Elementary School scored "satisfactory" in reading; 77 percent hit that mark in math. Three years ago, no pupils at the school reached the satisfactory level in either subject.

Principal Lydia Lemon said a renewed emphasis on reading instruction, along with the help of a staff developer from a local education foundation, allowed teachers to target instruction to students’ weaknesses. The school also developed a plan called "testing as a genre" that helped students learn how to be more skilled test-takers.

"We are data-driven," Ms. Lemon said. "We are teaching to the children’s needs."

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Page 11

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