Schools Go Past 'Proficient' On Tests

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Like many elementary schools struggling to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, North Forestville Elementary in Prince George's County went all-out this year to increase the share of students rated proficient on the statewide Maryland School Assessment.

The effort yielded an added dividend. Not only did more students attain proficiency at the school, but a far greater percentage rated "advanced" on the state assessment, meaning that they mastered most or all grade-level skills.

Although proficiency is the overarching goal of the federal education mandate, a growing number of principals, teachers and parents are tracking student progress in reaching the next level of performance on MSAs, advanced. They see that as a gateway to honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate study in high school.

Student performance is grouped into three broad levels on Maryland's test: basic, indicating partial mastery of grade-level work; proficient; and advanced, a term that roughly equates to performance above grade level.

A Washington Post analysis of state test scores for 457 elementary schools in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties found steady progress in moving students from proficiency to advanced performance.

Nearly 350 schools in the eight-county region increased the percentage of their students rated advanced on the MSA, or at least held steady, while about 100 schools went down, based on a comparison of 2006 and 2007 performance. The analysis considered tests given in reading and math in grades 3, 4 and 5, ignoring schools with incomplete data and students in grades other than those three.

The share of students rated advanced at North Forestville Elementary rose from 5 percent in 2006 to 16 percent this year, an 11-point gain reflecting a schoolwide push toward proficiency and beyond.

With 58 percent of students receiving subsidized meals, the school fell just below the cutoff for federal Title I funds, an avenue to extra staff and supplies.

North Forestville Principal Wanda Grant nonetheless persuaded Prince George's school officials last year to give the school a full-time math specialist, a former classroom teacher who spent her time "just working with teachers and with small groups of students."

Grant also used incentives, contests and recognition ceremonies to focus students on the MSA.

"We kept it in their face," she said. "We would post the scores for particular classes or particular grades. The students are very competitive."

Critics of No Child Left Behind say the law encourages mediocrity at the expense of higher standards because it measures schools largely on proficiency rates.

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