County MSA Exam Scores Rise, Remain Ahead of Pack

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Howard County students continue to outperform their peers on statewide exams, making gains in reading and mathematics, according to data released by the Maryland State Department of Education this month.

The Howard school system posted some of the highest cumulative scores on the Maryland School Assessment exams this April, with 91 percent of students reaching advanced or proficient levels in reading, compared with 82 percent statewide. In mathematics, 86 percent of county students were advanced or proficient, compared with 76 percent statewide. County students' proficiency rate increased four percentage points in reading and two points in math from last year.

Student scores fall into three categories: advanced, proficient and basic.

Howard's elementary students posted particularly strong reading scores. At all 39 elementary campuses, 80 percent or more of students scored proficient or advanced in reading.

Portia White, the system's coordinator of testing, said that at one campus, Worthington Elementary in Ellicott City, 100 percent of students met the standards in reading. In two of the three grades tested at Worthington, 100 percent of the students met the standards in math.

"We are delighted, and it just confirms the good work that is going on," said Fran Clay, coordinator of elementary language arts for the school system.

Student populations that have traditionally struggled on the MSA also posted notable gains in Howard. Reading and math scores improved significantly for African American and Hispanic students, as well as those who speak limited English, special education students and those who receive free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of family income.

Clay credited the reading gains to focused programs that identify early on which students are struggling. Teachers meet with parents and other instructors to craft an individualized plan for helping the students, Clay said.

Still, White said: "When we look at data, there are some challenges there. I don't think people always understand that having good scores doesn't mean you sit back and rest on your laurels. We know that we have some challenges."

Among those: closing the achievement gap among various subgroups of students, including special education, African American and Hispanic students and those from low-income families. More than 85 percent of Asian-Pacific Islander and white students score at top levels in math and reading at all grades, and despite this year's gains, African American and Hispanic students lag across the board. A similar pattern is evident among students who speak limited English, are in special education or are poorer.

The MSA exams are part of the state's effort to comply with testing requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The tests, which measure math and reading skills, were given to third- through eighth-grade public school students. The goal of the federal law is to have all students proficient in math and reading by 2014.

The MSA math and reading tests given in the spring were each a half-hour shorter than those in past years, and some of the questions were changed to align more closely with the state's curriculum.

Scores from the MSA exams are used to calculate whether schools have attained adequate yearly progress, a measure of annual improvement, under the federal law. Schools that fail to meet yearly targets are subject to sanctions. That information will be released later this year.

Scores for high school students, as well as graduation rates and attendance figures, will also be released later, state officials said.

Statewide, officials reported significant improvement overall in reading and math scores. There was also improvement among African American and Hispanic students and those with special learning needs.

Since 2003, when the tests were first given, composite scores for reading at the elementary level have risen 24 percentage points; elementary math scores have also increased 24 percentage points.

Middle school scores have also shown gains over the years. Reading proficiency has increased almost 19 percentage points, and the percentage of middle school students proficient in math has risen nearly 29 points. Even so, many students locally and across the country still struggle with literacy well into high school. Maryland's largest system, Montgomery County, has established reading support programs at the high school level in an effort to boost achievement.

In Howard, officials have also established summer programs to give students who might be struggling a boost, schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said. The system has also worked closely with parents of students who don't speak English to help them understand what the tests mean and how they work.

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