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BOE, administrators try to find cause of declining MSA results

Absences due to H1N1, snow days, poor economy among suggested reasons

August 03, 2010|By JULIE E. GREENE
  • Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan
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A year ago, the mood at the Washington County Board of Education's Central Offices was celebratory as every public elementary and middle school met 2009 proficiency standards for state testing.

On Tuesday, two weeks after the 2010 results were released, the mood was less jubilant and more studious as the school board asked administrative staff about the latest results. Six schools failed to meet proficiency standards in 2010 and, with the goal of having every student score at least proficient by 2014, the road ahead was appearing tougher.

Three elementary schools and three middle schools did not meet Maryland School Assessment (MSA) proficiency standards. One of the middle schools, Western Heights, is in "school improvement" phase because of past difficulties in meeting the standards, despite doing well in 2009.

The county's overall proficiency levels dropped in three areas -- elementary reading, middle school reading and middle school math -- and stayed even in elementary math, a state education official has said.

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Snow days, absences due to the H1N1 flu, students blowing off tests, a poor economy and the increasing toughness in meeting higher goals were among the possible reasons school board officials discussed for declining results.

"But I don't want to portray to the public in any way that we're making excuses," Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said.

Still, it was a difficult year in some respects, Morgan said.

Morgan said there might be a link between the assessment results and the high absenteeism in the fall as H1N1 took its toll.

Before the assessment tests were given in March, all county public schools were closed for eight days due to snow, and the school day was shortened by at least two hours on five other days due to weather, according to a list of the year's school closings.

School board member Ruth Anne Callaham asked if the recession could be a factor in results. With so many homes "stretched" by the poor economy, some parents might not have had as much time to help their children study, she said.

Administrators said they were looking into factors inside and outside the classroom.

Board member Paul Bailey said he's heard of students who decide to "blow off" such tests by filling in answers randomly.

Donna Hanlin, assistant superintendent for curriculum, school administration and improvement, said teachers and principals use a variety of ways to motivate students to take the tests properly.

Last school year, students took the math assessment tests before the reading ones, said Michael Markoe, assistant superintendent for student and staff support. Reading typically takes more stamina, he said. But Markoe said he wasn't going to make excuses for the school system not making the gains it's had in the past.

School Board Vice President Justin Hartings said meeting the proficiency goals isn't as important to him as showing steady progress.

"This is one way of measuring what we're all about. There are lots of ways," Hartings said. "Testing is the world in which we live."

The question is whether the results for the schools that didn't meet proficiency standards are an anomaly or a new trend, Hartings said.

"My hope is it's the former, not the latter," Hartings said.

School system officials will look for specific causes and provide additional teacher training, Markoe said. The school system needs to regain momentum and move forward, he said.

Markoe said the county school system needs to "own" its results when they are great and when they are average. There are no excuses, he said.

Hartings said Morgan often refers to research indicating it takes three to five years for a school restructuring to show a turnaround.

Next year will be the end of that period for Western Heights Middle School, Hartings said. That school was restructured for the 2006-07 school year.

Being in year five doesn't mean the school would be at the "end of (its) rope," Hanlin said. Education officials will continue to work to improve the school, she said.

Western Heights has a young staff that is dedicated and hardworking, Hanlin said.

School board member Donna Brightman compiled rankings for the state's different school systems based on the MSA data.

"We seem to have dropped in our state rankings considerably this year," she said. As examples, she noted that, from 2009 to 2010, the county dropped from ninth to 11th in fifth-grade math and from fifth to 16th in sixth-grade reading.

"Did you see anywhere we went up?" Morgan asked.

"No," Brightman said.

The staff's MSA presentation on Tuesday didn't include such rankings.

Morgan and Markoe said that, often, as the percentage of students who meet proficiency or advanced levels gets closer to 100 percent, the gaps between the school system rankings get tighter.

As schools get into percentages of 90 or higher, progress becomes more difficult and there is a better chance of going down than up, Morgan said.

Callaham cautioned her colleagues to be careful as they discuss MSAs.

"People are beginning to judge our schools by MSA scores," including during the recent redistricting process, Callaham said. "When we know our schools are equally good."

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