Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

What test scores have to teach us

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At any number of school bus stops on Monday morning, anxious moms and dads outnumbered the children, watching them climb aboard their yellow buses for the journey to the opening day of school.

The first week of school — a transition between summer break and settling in for a serious course of learning — almost always brings a blend of excitement, trepidation, new challenges and opportunities. Not to mention a few tears — for both parents and students.

As the state’s largest school system, Montgomery County opens its new year in relatively good academic shape and maintaining a keen focus on continuous improvement, especially at middle schools.

While results from just-released SAT college-entrance exams show some slippage in scores over the previous year, new results from other statewide standardized exams show gains in reading and math scores on MSA tests, shorthand for Maryland School Assessments, at most middle schools.

The state reported 71 percent of county middle schools met ‘‘adequate yearly progress” standards this year, up from 45 percent a year earlier. Only five of the county’s 129 elementary schools didn’t meet the standards this year, which translates into a 96 percent passing rate.

Federal rules will require all students to get at least a proficient score on the MSAs by 2014. Tests are given each year to pupils in grades three through eight. There is a point to all this proficiency testing, including the fact that high school students must pass HSA exams in order to graduate. At the same time, some parents have complained that schools are putting more emphasis on test taking and that is hurting basic education.

Boosting middle schools has been a priority of the school board and administrators for years. While it was juggling a number of budget priorities, the school board last winter approved a three-year reform plan that channels $10 million to add more rigor to courses, improve technology for instruction and to hire additional guidance counselors. There are ongoing efforts at all levels to get parents deeply involved in the education of their children.

Administrators are hopeful that results achieved when attention was paid to elementary schools over the past eight years will translate into similar gains at middle schools in the coming years.

It’s important that elementary and middle school gains not be overshadowed by SAT scores for the Class of 2007, which declined by 10 points over the previous year. The county’s combined average score of 1624 remained higher than state and national averages, according to a report released Tuesday.

Administrators are poring over possible factors for the dip, pointing out that more students took the latest exam than ever before and some were less prepared than others, and that fewer students are taking the test again to try to better their scores. (Declines occurred in state and national results, as well.) Time is required to probe for any trends and there needn’t be alarmist reaction to the declining SAT numbers.

This first week back to the classroom should be used for getting acclimated to new routines, working out inevitable kinks and reflecting on the quality of schools and taxpayer commitment to funding a first-class system that Montgomery County has built over decades, all the while nimbly reacting to growth, shifting demographics and budget pressures.

Just like learning multiplication tables or cursive, improvements in institutions don’t occur overnight and require significant willpower, practice, patience and diligence.