Do you think there's a problem with our kids' grammatical knowledge? Here's why I ask:

A Spanish III teacher recently told a group of parents that she had asked her class to construct sentences in which the verbs preceded the subject. The children didn't know what she was talking about. "Children in China and Japan know more English grammar than your children," the teacher told the parents. The parents' heads bobbed up and down in agreement and dismay.

Secondly, I saw a newsletter that includes comments of teachers who scored the Criterion Reference Tests. The CRTs are the county's test of whether students in grades 3 through 8 have mastered the curriculum, and they include both multiple-choice tests and essays. Montgomery County teachers score the tests, which gives them a tremendous opportunity to see the work of students across the county and to gain some general impressions of their writing.

In the newsletter, published by the Department of Educational Accountability, teachers say that students throughout the county have problems making their subjects and verbs agree, ensuring that the antecedent of pronouns is clear, avoiding run-on sentences and using commas correctly.

I'd love to hear from parents and teachers about this issue and what if anything more should be done. It also would be great to hear from some recent graduates of Montgomery County high schools.

Fewer Students, Lower Scores

Dear Homeroom:

Regarding the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program, I understand that students who are absent on a test day receive a score of zero for that portion of the test.

If this is true, and there is no correction in the results for absentees, the MSPAP testing results cannot provide any true indication of school performance.

What is the reason for these statistical methods?

Considering all the effort involved in organizing, preparing, completing and grading these tests, the state really should come up with a better way to accommodate absentees so that the testing results really do provide an accurate indication of school performance.

Kathy Mihm


First, the usual reminder: MSPAP is the state testing program, which is not to be confused with the county's program of CRTs (see above).

The reason Maryland counts every absence as a zero is very simple and a bit chilling to those who have never come up against this issue before. It is because if absences are not counted against a school, then some unscrupulous principals may encourage their low-performing children to stay home on testing days so as not to lower their schools' scores.

The fact that every absence results in a worse score than any low-performing student would achieve means that no principal is tempted to shuffle their least convenient students away or lose their test papers.

It also means that principals have a direct interest in making sure every child in the school does as well on the test as possible, which means they have an interest in making sure every child receives quality instruction throughout the year and isn't ignored in favor of others.

You are not the only person who has objected to this reporting policy, however.

In response, the state's Department of Education has done an analysis of each school's absences during the week of state testing.

None of the schools I checked appeared to have been affected much by absences. However, it is possible that a very small school hit hard by a flu bug during testing week might have scores that don't accurately reflect its program.

Go to the Web site Click on data, and then follow directions for county and school name. You will find a truly astounding set of data analysis sets, including the one about absences.

In fact, I highly recommend that all parents and teachers check the data for their school through that Web site. It still has 1998 data on it, but it is scheduled to have the 1999 data entered into it Dec. 1, and all the information is clearly presented with lots of color graphs and interesting questions. It was designed for school improvement teams to look at as they try to devise ways to improve teaching and learning, but anyone can go and see how a particular school is doing in relation to other schools in the county and state.

Working Both Sides of the Brain

Dear Homeroom:

I agree with you that a strong social studies curriculum consists of an understanding of concepts built upon a foundation of facts. I must, however, take issue with this statement: "I'm not sure even the most ardent social studies advocates realize how many ill-considered art projects . . . are being created in the name of social studies skills and concepts" (Oct. 7).

I believe that for many students, creative projects engage them and can give them a richer understanding of the subject. In recent years we have learned a great deal more about the structure and growth of the brain, and we know for sure that some functions are based in the left side of the brain and some in the right.

"Left-brained" thinkers excel in those areas seated in that hemisphere: logical/sequential thinking, use of language, organization and auditory processing. "Right-brainers," on the other hand, generally have weaknesses in these areas but strengths in visual processing, intuitive reasoning, global understanding of concepts, creativity, three-dimensional visualization and visual memory.

These right-brained children need to have more rather than fewer opportunities both to be taught with more visual cues (such as diagrams, graphs, maps, videos, models) and to demonstrate knowledge and understanding with projects that allow them to use their talents in the visual/spatial realm. For these children, writing a report is torture and turns them off to the learning process, while creating a diorama engages them and gives them a chance to shine.

In my opinion, for every research project or book report assigned, students should be given the option to demonstrate what they have learned in another, more visual, format.

Sally Kelly

Chevy Chase

You have raised a hot issue, one that goes by a lot of buzzwords including not only "right-brained" and "left-brained" but also "learning styles" and what Harvard professor Howard Gardner calls "multiple intelligences."

Basically, the science of all of this is in its infancy; we are only beginning to understand how complex the working of the brain is and the implications this has for teaching and learning. But the simple story is that all the brain research--at least what I've seen--points to the conclusion that all children can learn, even if they learn in somewhat different ways.

It seems to me that the key question here is to decide what we want children to know and be able to do. Once we have those goals clearly in mind, the brain research is useful in figuring out how we can help children achieve those goals--not to make excuses for why they can't.

For example, in the field of social studies, all children should know a lot about history and be able to write cogently and coherently about what they know. Because history is in large part understood only through the written word, writing is an integral part of social studies.

Having said that, though, we can then draw on the brain research to be sure that teaching methods stimulate all parts of the brain.

For example, teachers should--in addition to using the traditional methods of reading and listening--take students on field trips, have students reenact historical events and use visual materials such as historical paintings and photographs. Similarly, they should find lots of ways to teach expository writing so that children can use writing not only to demonstrate their knowledge of the material taught but also to analyze the complexities of history and historical evidence.

That is quite different from saying that if something is too difficult for the poor dears they shouldn't have to learn it.

But even if we were to separate writing from the mastery of social studies material, I'm not convinced art projects are the way to go.

Kid-produced dioramas rarely demonstrate the knowledge of anything except how to keep clay figures stuck in place on a bus ride. That's too limited a learning goal for any child.

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