By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – Just 29 percent of Maryland fourth-graders scored at the “proficient” level on a national reading test in 1998, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education.
But state education officials said they were pleased with the scores, which were higher than those Maryland posted in 1992 and 1994 and on par with the national average in 1998.
“Generally, we’re really happy with what was released today,” said Nan Mulqueen, a state Education Department spokeswoman. “This is encouraging because we’re moving in the right direction.”
The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment said that 29 percent of Maryland students were proficient, 32 percent had “basic” reading skills and 39 percent were below basic.
Basic achievement is defined as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills,” while the proficient level “represents solid academic performance.” National education goals call for all students to be proficient in reading.
“A majority of students are not reading at the proficient level and that is where we need to be,” said U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley in a prepared statement on the test results.
Mulqueen said that while the number of “proficient” students in Maryland remains low, the number of students attaining the “basic” level is encouraging.
“We have a lot of students moving from below-basic performance to at or above basic,” she said. The 39 percent “below basic” in 1998 was down from 45 percent in 1994.
Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the test sets “a pretty tough standard, and it’s a worthy standard.” But “marginal improvement is insufficient to us,” Pence said.
“We’re not going to make major improvement unless we do the things that will make a difference,” he said. “Get those class sizes down; get fully qualified teachers in there.”
In Virginia, 30 percent of public-school fourth-graders who took the test in 1998 earned proficient scores, 34 percent earned basic scores and 36 percent were below basic.
Ten percent of Washington, D.C., students scored proficient or above, 18 percent had basic skills and 72 percent were below basic. Of the 43 jurisdictions participating in the study, only the Virgin Islands scored lower than the district.
The test was given to a sample of 2,241 fourth-graders in Maryland public schools. The national average was derived from a sample of 6,300 students across the country.
Mulqueen pointed out that Maryland was one of only 10 jurisdictions to post what the report called a “significantly higher” average score in 1998 than in 1994. Maryland fourth-graders scored an average of 215 on a 500-point scale in 1998, compared with 210 in 1994. The national average increased from 212 to 215 over the same period.
“We have a long way to go,” Mulqueen acknowledged. “(The report) shows that as a nation we’re not where we should be, and as a state we’re making progress.”
Girls outscored boys on the test in every state. But the gap was largest in Maryland, where girls’ scores averaged 221 compared to 209 for boys.
Mulqueen said the state is much more concerned with score disparities between racial and ethnic groups. “We haven’t noticed as much of a gender gap as we have a racial gap,” she said.
She said officials are pleased with the progress being made in all students’ scores, including those of minority students.
“We achieved statistically significant increases among both white and black students,” she said.
Seventy-six percent of white fourth-graders in Maryland scored at or above the basic level on the 1998 test, compared to 69 percent in 1994. For black students, scores also rose 7 percentage points, from 31 percent in 1994 to 38 percent in 1998.
Mulqueen said the State Board of Education “has made 1999 the year of really focusing on at-risk populations, especially African-American males and poor students.” Thursday’s report also showed large gaps between low-income students and those who are better-off financially.
She pointed to SAFE — School Accountability Funding for Excellence — as a primary example of the state’s commitment to helping at-risk students succeed. “Those are targeted funds really focused on poor schools,” she said.
Mulqueen also said the state has “really just shifted an amazing amount of focus onto reading,” increasing the number of courses on reading that must be taken by both new and experienced teachers. Even high school math and science teachers must now take classes in how to teach reading, she said.