Thursday, July 17, 2008

Test scores continue to increase

Officials concerned budget cuts could affect student progress

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While Prince George’s County public school officials were thrilled over the excellent test results in this year’s Maryland School Assessments, they cautioned that looming budget cuts next school year could derail student progress.

Superintendent John E. Deasy said Monday he was ‘‘ecstatic” at the improvements, which occurred in all grade levels in the two subjects taken — math and reading — and in all student subgroups, including low-income and limited-English students.

‘‘That’s never really happened before,” Deasy said of the gains made by students tested in grades three through eight. ‘‘And the trend in the last three or four years is really phenomenal.”

But Deasy said the gains could only be sustained if the school system gets funding support.

‘‘We will catch up and exceed the state if we’re able to continue this ... and that is absolutely dependent on continuing fiscal support,” he said. ‘‘I’m very worried about looming cuts.”

The county school system has faced a budget crunch in recent years due to the downturn in the housing market, causing a shortfall of $45 million to the county’s coffers in fiscal 2009, which started July 1. The County Council is expected to cut $14 million from the school system’s $1.6 billion fiscal 2009 budget later this month.

Deasy said the school system has not yet determined which areas will have to reduce expenditure.

But for now, the focus is on reviewing the MSA test results released this week by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Countywide, the number of students scoring ‘‘proficient” or ‘‘advanced” — the equivalent of meeting federal education standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 — was up in every grade level. Students made double-digit gains overall in several categories, including a 15 percent gain in fifth-grade reading from 61.8 percent last year to 77.1 percent this year, and a 12 percent gain in seventh-grade reading to 69.7 percent this year.

The highest countywide increase in math was at the seventh-grade level, which had a 7.7 percent gain – from 46 percent in 2007 to 53.7 percent this year.

The county’s overall average was 71.6 percent proficient or better in reading and 64.4 percent proficient or better in math. Statewide, the average reading score was 82.3 percent proficient or advanced and 76.2 percent in math.

All students must attain grade-level proficiency in all content areas by the 2013-2014 school year under federal law. Schools are expected to make improvements, described as ‘‘adequate yearly progress,” every year. Schools that fail to make AYP, which factors in attendance, test scores and other criteria, for two consecutive school years are placed on a state watch list and are required to take corrective action to turn around student performance.

The state has not yet released information on which schools made AYP.

Last year, four county schools were added to the school improvement list while 11 schools were removed. This year, 17 of the 56 county elementary and middle schools could exit school improvement if they meet progress targets.

Deasy attributes the improved scores to a variety of programs in use at county schools. Among them are America’s Choice, a supplemental math and literacy program, and an outreach effort to get families more involved in schools.

‘‘The bottom line is I’m just incredibly proud of the youth,” Deasy said.

An analysis of the statistics shows that middle school students still lag behind elementary-level students.

The lowest overall scores were posted by eighth-graders; only 42.4 percent scored proficient or better in math, while 56.7 percent scored proficient or better in reading.

Yet Deasy said the middle school level was where the county school system improved the most.

‘‘Those are some of the places we saw some of our strongest gains,” Deasy said.

Of students who have limited English proficiency, scores increased at all levels except for sixth-grade math, which remained at 44 percent.

The most significant increases for limited-English students were in fifth-grade reading scores, which jumped from 29 percent proficient or advanced to 64 percent proficient or advanced – a 35 percent increase.

Scores also increased for low-income students who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal program. The scores increased an average of 5.6 percentage points in reading and an average of 5.2 percentage points in math this year compared to 2007.

Several county schools earned 100 percent proficiency ratings in one or more of the categories on the test.

Avalon Elementary in Fort Washington had 100 percent proficiency in fifth-grade reading, Fort Washington Forest Elementary had 100 percent proficiency in fourth-grade reading, Heather Hills Elementary in Bowie had 100 percent in fourth-grade reading, and Tulip Grove Elementary in Bowie had 100 percent in third-grade math, fifth-grade math and fifth-grade reading.

School board Chairwoman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At-large) said the news of rising scores should encourage the public that children in the county are capable of high achievement.

‘‘I am more than ecstatic about this. ... At the end of the day, this is what our decisions are about; this is what the changes are about, and this is what the news should be about,” Jacobs said.

Although Prince George’s students have steadily improved, the school system remains low in overall average proficiency levels in reading and math. The average proficiency level in math is 64.4 percent, and the reading proficiency level is 71.6 percent, next to the last in the state. Baltimore city was the only school system with lower averages.

The state is expected to release AYP information later this summer. The results of last year’s High School Assessments, the state exams required for high school students to graduate, are expected to be released in August.

More information on the MSA tests can be found at www.mdreportcard.org.

Staff Writer Daniel Valentine contributed to this report.

E-mail Megan King at mking@gazette.net.