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tests show reading worst subject

December 09, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Washington County students struggle with reading and writing but are performing better in math and science, according to test results released on Tuesday.

A grade-by-grade breakdown of the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program tests in six academic areas shows reading is by far the county's worst subject.

The gulf is most dramatic in eighth grade, where only about 25 percent of the county's students who took the test last May received a satisfactory score.

That was down from 32.9 percent in 1997 and far lower than the 58 percent of students who scored satisfactory in math, the class's best subject.

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Despite an overall gain in the county's composite score, test results showed a decline from last year in all six subject areas in the eighth grade test.

Boyd Michael, director of secondary education for Washington County schools, said the eighth-graders performed better on most of the tests than they did when they were in third and fifth grade.

He said the results are still a cause for concern.

"Because it happened at all schools, there isn't anything that suggests it's an individual school problem," he said.

Michael said the county is seeing reading results of students who were taught to read under the whole-language program, in which students learned to read by writing without regard to grammar and punctuation.

Although the program had good aspects, Michael said the system did not stress sounding out words and breaking them apart.

"Three or four years ago, my sixth grade teachers came to me and said for the first time, we're really experiencing a lot of nonreaders," he said.

Michael said he expects scores to increase over the next few years as students benefit from a new reading program implemented in elementary schools this year.

Big changes are planned for middle schools starting next year, he said.

Greater emphasis will be placed on reading and language arts classes, Michael said. Now, instruction is for between 55 and 65 minutes in most schools. But Michael said the subject matter will be 90 minutes in all schools.

Details have not been finalized, but Michael said the program might consist of 45-minute classes each in language arts and reading. Officials may even create separate reading grades on students' report cards.

Michael said officials also hope to give each middle school its own reading teacher who would help under-achieving students and train teachers.

MSPAP scores in Washington County were similar throughout the state. Reading scores among eighth-graders also dropped statewide. Test scores among eighth-graders were generally lower than those of fifth-graders.

Assistant State Superintendent Ron Peiffer said part of the reason is that broad changes have taken effect in elementary schools.

"(The test) really is sharpening instruction," he said.

Peiffer said middle schools teach English instead of reading, but that is changing.

Peiffer said English emphasizes literature while reading classes - and the MSPAP tests - emphasize reading to perform other tasks.

That approach to reading is fairly new, unlike science, where lab work and hands-on learning has been a staple for decades, Peiffer said.

It is probably no coincidence that students have scored better on the science tests, he said.

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