Washington's junior high schools will require students to take more courses this year in basic reading and mathematics, while cutting back on electives in a major effort to improve levels of academic achievement.
Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, who ordered the changes, said yesterday that all the city's 22,000 junior high students will be required to take assignments home every night in special notebooks.
Parents will be asked to sign forms, Reed said, pledging to check homework, provide a quiet place for study, and participate in parent-teacher conferences.
Reed said the new "intensive junior high instruction program" was prompted by the continued low test scores of D.C. ninth graders, despite improvements in elementary grades. Last spring, D.C. ninth-graders averaged 2 1/2 years below national norms in reading and almost three years below the norm in math.
The program will require no additional money, Reed said, and will be carried out despite the school system's current financial problems.
"We've known for a long time that we have to do something with the junior high schools," Reed said in an interview. "This is going to be tough. It's going to work some kids awful hard. But that's okay, because one day when they go out of school and read well, they'll feel much better."
In a memorandum sent to all secondary school principals, Reed said that despite substantial improvement over the last three years in elementary test scores in Washington, junior high scores have risen very slightly.
One exception was Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest Washington, which raised its reading and math scores from far below the national norms to comfortably above them.
Associate superintendent James T. Guines said much of the new city-wide program is based on what was done at Jefferson. The program also follows the results of research into teaching conducted by the National Institute of Education, the research division of U.S. Department of Education, Guines said.
"It's not very surprising," Guines said. "It's the time working on a particular subject that students spend that makes a difference. The more time you spend on reading, the more improvement there's going to be in your reading score. The more time spent on math, the more your math will improve.
"We're still going to have electives," he said. "But many students will defer taking the electives until such time as they can read and compete on grade level. Once the students are reading on grade-level, they will be successful in other things."
Under the program, all seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders scoring below national norms in reading on standardized tests will have to take a special reading course every day in addition to their regular class in English. Extra courses in basic mathematics will be given to those scoring low in that subject.
Guines said he wasn't certain how many students will have to take the basic skills classes, although last spring only about 25 percent of the city's ninth graders scored above the national norm in either reading or math. By contrast, almost half of the city's third- and sixth-graders scored above the norm in mathematics and about a third of the students in these grades were above the norm in reading.
Guines said this fall the schedules of some students will be changed after the first marking period to accommodate the extra reading and math classes. In some cases, because schools already have their teaching staffs for the year, not every student who needs the extra classes will be able to take them.
However, by next fall, Guines said, all students will be scheduled into extra reading courses unless they currently read above grade-level.
During the spring semester of the current academic year, which starts in February, all junior high students will spend at least two class periods a week in special classes in test-taking skills. These will cover the basic reasoning and analogy skills that standardized tests often emphasize as well as strategies for handling the test themselves.
Guines said the loose-leaf notebooks for homework assignments, which students will be expected to buy, and the pledge cards for parents are part of an effort to make students spend more time on academic work and to enlist the aid of parents to make sure they do it.
The pledge cards or contracts for parents to sign are part of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Push for Excellence. They are also being used in elementary schools in Prince George's County.
Guines said cards for Washington parents to sign would be sent home within a month. Although signing is voluntary, he said the school system would make a major effort to get all parents to sign.
Guines said academic work in junior highs must often compete with adolescent culture, which emphasizes sports, dates, and music. Parental involvement in school work as well as in getting library cards, visiting museums, and watching educational television, might be an antidote, Guines said, to these pulls.
J. Weldon Greene, the school system's director of program development who helped devise the new junior high plan, said the program fits in closely with the competency-based curriculum that has been developed over the past four years.
To make sure the new policy is followed, Reed said all junior highs will be required to submit their course schedules for review to the administrators who supervise them. Also, the new program will be used as an important element in evaluating teachers and administrators, Reed said.
Besides the extra courses and homework, a memorandum explaining the program said it also involves teachers in all junior high subjects stressing the skills tested on standardized tests. To provide more time in school for students to learn, the memo suggests reducing announcements over the public address systems, cutting back on assemblies, and making sure classes are more structured with "less free time, more teacher direction, and (clear instructions to make sure) each person knows what is to be done."
The memo urges that teachers "share with students the teacher's own value system and emphasis on academic goals," rather than trying to adjust their values to how the students feel.