By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – While eighth-grade reading scores improved by 1.5 percent on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests released this week, the 26.8 percent satisfactory score was still way behind the other five subjects tested.
Eighth-graders were 12.4 percentage points behind third-graders and 17.8 percentage points behind fifth-graders in reading scores on the test given to the three grades. The scores were 20.8 percentage points below the nearest similar subject, language usage, 47.6 percent.
MSPAP scores were released Thursday with the state hitting a record-high 45.3 percent composite score of students performing satisfactorily. The eighth- grade reading score was the highest since 1996’s 28.6 percent.
Some education authorities believe the trouble with eighth-grade reading stems from the age group that takes the tests.
“I think eighth-graders are a little test savvy,” said Karen Blair, director of Towson University’s graduate reading education program. “Eighth- graders know that (the test) doesn’t count on an individual basis. I think eighth-graders know they might not be as committed to really struggling on those test items. The expectations are different than the comprehensive test of basic skills.”
Basic skills test scores and MSPAP scores in Maryland show little disparity in middle school reading, school officials said.
The MSPAP reading test requires students to read questions, make observations and comprehend stories in a written response. The other subjects tested are writing, language usage, mathematics, social studies and science.
Students also must handle multiple tasks while taking the test, unlike the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills where they sit in isolation and answer questions, said Blair.
State officials have several proposals to improve accountability for the tests, including making high school assessments, the high school test of the Maryland School Performance Program, a graduation requirement.
“(Middle school achievement) is a really complex problem that has been decades in the making,” said Neil Greenberger, spokesman for the State Department of Education.
A state task force on middle-grade performance calls for stronger instruction and the revamping of training programs for teachers.
New legislation for middle-grade-level learning provides $12 million for extra tutors and assistance programs to help students.
Seventeen of 24 jurisdictions improved on the test. Scores in Caroline County improved 15.5 percentage points, while no decrease was greater than 6 percentage points. Kent County had the highest score on the test at 38.3 percent.
State officials recognize the difficulty in handling middle grade students and believe there is a national problem with learning at the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade levels where performance scores reflect less growth.
The problem is puzzling because the social studies, writing and language usage portions of the test, while similar, have much higher scores, said Greenberger.
Also puzzling is the fact that the same children scored better at younger ages. In 1997, 35.6 percent of the current eighth-graders scored satisfactorily on the reading test when they were fifth-graders.
There also are achievement gaps among the different genders, ethnic groups and income groups. For example, eighth-grade boys scored 14.9 percentage points lower than girls in reading on the recent MSPAPs.
Officials in Caroline County, which saw its scores rise 15.5 percentage points, are not satisfied with the results because they realize the scores could fall again. County officials are in the process of using new strategies designed to improve student performances. Of the more than 100 teaching methods available, county officials are only using a couple.
“We’re always hopeful that the scores are going to improve,” said Helen Schmidt, supervisor of reading instruction for Caroline County.
The county, which has two middle schools, has worked with a reading specialist to help teachers improve reading instruction, she said. One reading fundamental the students have learned is asking questions while reading a text.
But even in Caroline County there still is a decline in reading when students reach the sixth-grade level.
“There is no magic formula,” said Greenberger. “(Programs) have had different levels of success. No one method has been an overall success.”