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Salem Avenue Elementary leads county

December 14, 1998

Salem Ave. Elem. on topBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




Schools searching for a model on how to ace Maryland's rigorous standardized tests need look no further than Salem Avenue Elementary School, which is one of just 24 schools in the state to make the grade in all subject areas.

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Despite five straight years of improvement on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, Washington County schools still lag well behind the goal of having 70 percent of students receive satisfactory scores by the year 2000. This year, the county's composite score - the combination of scores in the different subject areas - was 48.3 percent.

Jumping more than 20 points in two years is a tall order, but not impossible, according to education officials.

"Salem Avenue gives us hope that it's possible," said Theresa Flak, assistant superintendent for instruction.

The third-graders at Salem Avenue have improved their scores each year, raising their composite score from 33.5 percent to 80.4 percent since 1993. From 1997 to 1998, the school posted a walloping 23-point increase.

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The gains have come across the board. More than 70 percent of the students who took the tests last May received satisfactory scores in reading, writing, language usage, math, science and social studies.

In addition, more than one-quarter of the students received excellent scores in writing, language usage and science.

Other schools are beginning to take notice of Salem Avenue. Teachers from a Baltimore school visited on Thursday, Salem Avenue administrators said.

Washington County education officials said the system has modeled some of its programs after Salem Avenue.

But Principal Vincent G. Spong said observers are not likely to find a magic formula.

"There's no secret. It's called good, old-fashioned hard work," he said. "A 40-hour work week would seem like a vacation to these people."

Spong said his school has improved through a mix of dedicated teachers, inventive programs designed to build parental and community support, and flexibility allowed by new federal rules governing aid to poor children.

Curriculum changes

In 1993, the first year the MSPAP tests counted, Salem Avenue's composite score was 33.5 percent, about 4.4 points better than other county third-graders.

As in many other schools across the state, Spong said the kids were not prepared.

"One of the first things we did is, we studied the curriculum," he said.

The MSPAP tests are dramatically different from the standardized tests that previous generations of students have taken. There are no multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions. Tests are graded by hand, not by computer.

Students are required to perform tasks and analyze information with a heavy emphasis on writing.

The tests measure the kinds of high-level thinking skills educators say the modern business world demands. In some cases, students work in groups and then individually answer questions about the project.

"You have to support your answers with information," Spong said.

Spong said teachers at his school began writing lesson plans in 1992 tailored to the curriculum goals. Teachers stressed the most important elements from textbooks and other materials.

For instance, third-grade teacher Angela Singer said the test might measure students' grasp of congruency and symmetry in geometry.

"Therefore, you're going to base your lessons on congruency and symmetry," she said. "It's narrowing your scope."

As they sharpened the curriculum, Salem Avenue teachers said they also introduced their students to the MSPAP form. Now, from the time they are in kindergarten, students regularly perform the kinds of tasks the tests demand.

"I think the test has really raised the bar for education," Singer said.

Changing perceptions

Spong said the tests have spurred better teaching and a much higher level of learning.

"Our kids do an awful lot of writing," he said. "They write in science as if they're scientists. They write in math as if they're mathematicians. These kids who leave here after fourth grade can write much better that I could in seventh grade."

That didn't always go over well with parents, though, school officials said. Many complained when they saw what their 8- and 9-year-old children were asked to accomplish, they said.

"We were just getting note after note after note asking, 'Why are you expecting this from my child' and 'I was doing this in seventh grade,'" said teacher Carol Corwell-Martin, who also serves as the school's curriculum coordinator.

So Salem Avenue teachers set out to change the parents' attitudes, Corwell-Martin said. She said the school invited parents to have an unprecedented level of involvement in their children's education.

The school now sponsors family reading nights where parents and children come to the school to read together. A mentoring program begun last year matches volunteers from the community to spend time with students.

Third-grade teacher Jana Palmer said teachers also have had to adjust.

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