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SREB Urges Greater Focus on Middle Grades in South

June 30, 2009 4 min read
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A new report raises concerns about the achievement levels of middle school students in many Southern states and outlines steps state leaders should consider to better prepare young people for high school.

The report by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board finds what it calls modest gains among most of its 16 member states in meeting state standards for middle-grades reading and mathematics between 2003 and 2007. But it argues that those advances are inadequate and that many of the states, in a region from Texas to Delaware, have set their standards too low.

In fact, the report notes that during the same time period, reading scores on a national assessment in the SREB region were generally “stagnant,” and that gains in math were “much too slow.”

“Although SREB states have made good progress in early-grades achievement, when students reach the middle grades, they begin to lose momentum and often reach the ninth grade unprepared,” writes David S. Spence, the president of the SREB, in an introduction to the report. “Without successful intervention strategies and programs in the middle grades, it is often too late for high school programs to make much difference in retaining struggling students and guiding them toward graduation.”

The organization recommends to states a set of specific strategies. They include: developing statewide reading-intervention programs; restructuring the middle-grades math curriculum to help more students prepare for Algebra 1 by 8th grade; and improving professional development and the regulations for certification of middle school teachers.

Other suggestions include providing an accelerated curriculum to all students not achieving on grade level as they enter the middle grades, and making college and career exploration an essential element of the middle school curriculum.

‘A Realistic Picture’

The report is part of a series by the SREB telling member states how they’re faring on the group’s “Challenge to Lead” goals for education, which were approved by a commission of state leaders from across the region in 2002. The nonprofit organization, founded by Southern governors and state legislators, works with its member states to improve education.

The report notes that only five of the 16 member states made gains in the percentage of 8th graders scoring at or above the “basic” level in reading on the National Assessement of Educational Progress between 2003 and 2007. The median for SREB states was 71 percent in both 2003 and 2007.

In math, the median level for students reaching at least the basic level rose to 70 percent in 2007 from 67 percent in 2003.

(The report calculates the SREB median across the region by averaging the results for the two states falling in the middle of the results.)

Although the report says SREB states have made progress in setting higher academic standards, many of them still fall short.

For reading, only six states—Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Mississippi—had their standards, as well as related assessments and cutoff scores, set appropriately, based on an analytical approach outlined by the National Center for Education Statistics, the report says. In math, half the SREB states had set their 8th grade standards “about right,” the report says—Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas.

However, Joan M. Lord, the vice president for education policies at the SREB, cautioned in an interview that some states have been working since 2007 to revise their standards, assessments, and cut scores.

Georgia is a case in point. It was among the states the report describes as having had standards that were set too low. In reading, for instance, 88 percent of students met the state standard in 2007, but 70 percent scored at basic or above on NAEP in that year, and only 26 percent achieved the NAEP “proficient” level.

Dana M. Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, said that since 2007, his state has been implementing a new curriculum in each grade. It is also in the process of aligning state standards and assessments to that curriculum.

“The knowledge we’re asking kids to learn is certainly at a higher level,” he said.

Mr. Tofig emphasized that Georgia officials “want to make sure we’re giving a realistic picture of where students are.”

Meanwhile, the report says that nearly all SREB states increased the percentage of 8th graders taking pre-algebra or higher-level math courses between 2003 and 2007. At the same time, high failure rates among students in those courses suggest states need to do a better job of preparing students for the courses before they enter the 8th grade, the report says.

Georgia and Maryland had the highest rates of 8th graders—87 percent—who were taking pre-algebra or higher-level math courses in 2007, based on NAEP data.

Maryland aims to have all students complete pre-algebra by the end of 7th grade and algebra by the end of 8th grade.

“It seems that the kids can do the work if it’s presented to them,” said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Modest’ Middle School Gains Seen in South

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