Staff members at Patterson High School hear the clock ticking. They know that unless strong steps are taken to build students’ academic prowess, few of this year’s 9th graders will pass the tests that will be a state graduation requirement in three years.
Teachers and administrators here believe passionately that they have a plan that will lead to success for their students. They are eager to talk about the revamped curriculum, the teacher training, the extra student-help sessions that are producing steady improvements.
Maryland education leaders hear the same ticking clock, but have little faith that Patterson can put all its 9th graders in caps and gowns by June 2009. Fed up with a decade of low test scores, the state board of education tried to take over the school last month, along with expanding its role in 10 other low-performing Baltimore schools. But the state legislature postponed the step, which the state board had taken as one of its options under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for a year. (“Md. Lawmakers Fight School Takeover Plan,” April 12, 2006)
That leaves the schools to forge ahead, at least for a while. But the Maryland dispute about what should be done to help every student graduate—and who should be in charge of doing it—raises questions that are likely to crop up more and more often as state and federal accountability systems nationwide force schools to revamp for better results.
Since 2003, Maryland’s secondary school students have taken the High School Assessments, or HSA, but this school year’s freshmen are the first class that must pass them to graduate.
For Baltimore’s high school students, the hurdle is no small one. In 2005, only 22 percent passed the algebra test. Of the four tests overall, the best results were in government; 42 percent passed. At Patterson High, 31 percent passed the government test, 16 percent passed the test in English, and 16 percent passed biology. Only 10 percent passed algebra.
Last week, with another administration of the tests a few weeks away, the preparation drumbeat at Patterson was strong. Hallway posters reminded the 1,600 students of the four tested subject areas. If they attend extra prep sessions during the day, after school, or on Saturdays, they can earn “scholar dollars” that can be used to get free burgers, movie passes, or compact discs.
Teachers say the incentives have turned half-filled prep-session rooms into nearly packed ones. But they know that filling the rooms is only a start. On a recent day, lead teachers in the four subjects described the recent work they believe will pay off when this year’s 9th graders face the tests.
Across all departments, teams analyze test scores so that each teacher learns what areas need to be addressed, and then work with the teachers to strengthen instruction in those areas. Teachers in each subject area are getting more common planning time to analyze student work. Department heads conduct group pullout sessions with “bubble” students—those deemed at great risk to fail the tests.
Joan Gardiner, who heads the English department, said that for the past several years, Patterson has been piloting a literacy-workshop curriculum for freshmen and sophomores. Teachers were trained in new reading- and writing-instruction methods, and they sometimes train teachers in other Baltimore schools as well.
She credits the program with boosting students’ literacy skills. Quarterly benchmark tests the school instituted this year show incremental gains, she said. Far too few students are scoring “proficient” on the High School Assessments, but she is encouraged to see that most test booklets are now filled in; stacks used to come back blank. She also sees something she never used to see: more students reading novels at school.
The district revised the mathematics curriculum a couple of years ago around the adoption of the Math Connections textbook. Following that text, it now uses a course of study that puts more emphasis on applications of concepts and less on basic computation, said department chairman Harry Martin. Algebra teachers at Patterson are regrouping students more frequently based on benchmark tests of their skills, he said.
Lead teachers meet weekly with district coaches for training in instruction and the analysis of students’ work, and then share what they learned with their department colleagues, Mr. Martin said.
Using the High School Assessments and Maryland’s voluntary state curriculum as guidelines, a couple Patterson teachers redesigned the government curriculum in 2003, said Kelly Sentinek, the department’s acting chairman. Benchmark tests at Patterson showed students particularly weak in economics, so coursework in that subject was added, she said.
The history department is hobbled by the focus on English and math, Ms. Sentinek contended. Social studies instruction is frequently edged out in middle school to make time for math and English, which are the state-tested subjects at that level, so students arrive in high school poorly prepared, she said. At the secondary level, she maintained, the English-math focus persists; her department often can’t get the resources for materials such as instructional videos and newspaper subscriptions.
In the past two years, the science curriculum has been redesigned, including a more hands-on, inquiry-based approach for 9th graders, and more work in developing the “skills and processes” of science, which represents 20 percent of the state biology test, said Patterson science department chairwoman Margaret Miller. Additionally, biology is now offered in 11th grade instead of 9th to allow students to build a stronger base with courses such as chemistry before taking it, she said.
Like other department heads, Ms. Miller analyzes benchmark-test data to focus her teacher training. Lately, for instance, she has been working with the science teachers on how to build students’ skills in the “brief constructed responses,” or short written passages, required in the biology test.
The Patterson staff sees its hard work paying off. Patterson outscores Baltimore’s other neighborhood high schools on most of the state tests, and notes its results have been improving. Since the first HSA in 2003, its passage rates have gone up 15 percentage points in government, 5 points in algebra, 10 points in biology, and 13 points in English.
Teachers also believe that the scores will improve significantly this year because students will be keenly aware, for the first time, that they “count.” Previously, students have had to take the tests, but weren’t required to pass them in order to graduate, so teachers suspect that many didn’t try very hard.
Patterson teachers note that progress is a tough walk uphill in a district that a Maryland judge concluded in 2000 had been fiscally shortchanged by the state for years. They also argue that Baltimore’s storied admissions high schools “cream off” the most motivated students, leaving the most challenged at the neighborhood schools with a discouraging message.
“In many ways, the system has already said to these kids, ‘You are not capable of achieving at a high level,’ ” said Ms. Gardiner, the head of the English department.
Bonnie S. Copeland, the chief executive officer of the 87,000-student Baltimore district, said it is frustrating that the state sought to take over schools when the district is seeing improvements from a plan that the state itself agreed to in 2002.
In line with that plan, the district is building more rigor into its curriculum, subdividing large high schools into smaller learning communities, opening new “innovation” high schools run by outside organizations, and providing training to bolster teaching and school leadership, she said.
Ms. Copeland acknowledges the project is a work in progress, but notes that the state and others who agreed to the plan knew it would take five to seven years. To step in now would risk undermining the gains that have been made so far, she said.
“Please come back and push hard at me after this year’s freshmen take these assessments, when we’ve put in the curriculum adjustments we knew we needed,” Ms. Copeland said. “If these students aren’t successful within the first two years, then we need other drastic measures.”
But Maryland leaders argue that Patterson and other schools in Baltimore can’t afford to wait two years to see what happens.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick sighs when she contemplates Baltimore’s plea for more time. She notes that Patterson has been on a state “needs improvement” watch list since 1994.
“Each year [Baltimore has] said, ‘We have a plan, we have a plan,’ but it falls apart in the implementation,” Ms. Grasmick said. “There have been incremental improvements. But we cannot have these small increments of progress when there is something so significant for students at the end of 2009. It’s not going to accelerate the opportunity for these students to get a diploma.”
The state had hoped to convert the seven targeted middle schools into charter schools or turn them over to outside groups to operate. It would have supervised the high schools itself or had outside groups run them. It had wanted the high schools to be forced to select curricula with proven track records in Maryland schools.
Patterson staffers grumble that if Maryland leaders advocated more effective practices, sharing that information in recent years would have been better than trying to take over. Ms. Grasmick contends that officials who represent the state on a district high school steering committee did indeed discuss what they viewed as better practices, but they do not control the committee and were generally overruled.
With the takeovers on hold, the question of whether the state could have improved Baltimore’s schools in enough time to help this year’s freshmen graduate is unlikely to be answered. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s effort to do so will be closely watched.
Ms. Grasmick said she hopes the debate about the takeovers will bring focus and help to Baltimore. “These schools,” she said, “have languished too long.”
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.