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2nd Graders Achieve Record Academic Gains

May 25, 2004
The more than 9,900 students in Grade 2 this year -- one of the most racially and ethnically diverse grade levels in the school system -- achieved at least the 68th median national percentile (language) and scored as high as the 87th median national percentile (language mechanics), the highest ever performance on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills.

African American students scored above the national average in every subject on this assessment for the first time, with the highest performance in mathematics computation (68th median national percentile). They were matched by Hispanic students, who narrowly missed the national average in only one subject (reading), but reached the 76th median national percentile in mathematics computation.

Overall, 75 percent of second grade scores were at or above the national average, compared to 70 percent last year and 65 percent four years ago. The national average was matched or exceeded by 61 percent of scores for Hispanic students, 60 percent for African American students, 56 percent for students receiving federal meal assistance, 50 percent for students receiving English language assistance, and 48 percent for students in special education.

Four Years of Steady Progress

“Four years ago, the plans for improving the early literacy skills for a new generation of children were implemented by the Montgomery County Public Schools,” said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report to the Board of Education. “The effort targeted kindergarten as the gateway to elementary school and began the incremental improvement of what children were expected to know and be able to do in each subsequent grade level.”

Last year, the first group of children to experience those reforms reached second grade and produced record levels of achievement on a nationally standardized assessment of reading, language, and mathematics. This spring, the second group of children followed and set new records.

This year’s performance levels build on a robust record of steady, incremental improvements in student achievement since the kindergarten reforms were first implemented.
Median scores for African American students, for example, have climbed from the 35th median national percentile in mathematics four years ago to the 60th median national percentile this year.

This progression of improvement was foreshadowed by a series of reports beginning in 2001 that documented the implementation of the school system’s early childhood education reforms that targeted the teaching and learning of reading and mathematics skills at the earliest possible age. At that time, there was great controversy about the appropriateness of the reform initiatives and whether children at risk of academic failure because of poverty and language would succeed in an academically rigorous school environment.

In 1999-2000, for example, only 45 percent of scores for African American students and 44 percent for Hispanic students were at or above the national average. Four years ago, 76 percent of scores for white and Asian students met or exceeded that benchmark, setting a comparative distinction that defined a significant portion of the achievement gap by race and ethnicity.

Gains for Students Receiving Special Services

The gains since then not only narrowed the gap but also occurred with improved achievement for all groups of students. Indeed, the performance gains by special education students, students receiving English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and students receiving Free and Reduced-price Meals System (FARMS) underscore the ideal situation in which achievement gaps narrow even as all groups of children improve.

The transformation in Grade 2 achievement has occurred against a backdrop of increased demographic diversity. The majority of students tested was comprised of African American students (21 percent), Hispanic students (20 percent), or Asian students (15 percent). Hispanic student enrollment has grown by 522 students (35 percent) since 2000. White student enrollment has declined by 14 percent (723 students) to 43 percent overall.

The success of the reform initiatives under these conditions has been cited repeatedly at the national level, most recently at this year’s conferences of the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators. This July, a school system report on the Early Success Performance Plan: Closing the Gap for our Youngest Learners will be presented at the 2004 National Forum on Education Policy, sponsored by the Education Commission of the States.

“Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done,” said Dr. Weast, who cited the challenge of achieving consistent steady progress in every subject area as “the central challenge facing the school system.”

ESOL students, for example, achieved at the 76th median national percentile in mathematics computation but declined in reading to the 34th median national percentile, even though they increased to the 43rd median national percentile in language. This inconsistency is occurring as the population of ESOL has dramatically increased.

Since 2000, the ESOL enrollment in Grade 2 has grown by 19 percent, to 911 students, reflecting the expansion of this segment of the student population in Montgomery County. The county already has nearly half of the state’s ESOL population and one of the largest ESOL enrollments in the Washington area.

Gains Build on a Record of Achievement

The improved performance is building on a record of achievement across much of the school system. The school system has focused considerable support and attention on 17 schools with the largest percentage of students participating in FARMS as a measure of the impact of poverty. As a group, the performance improvements are noteworthy, with the performance of students accelerating in the last two years as the children who first benefited from full-day kindergarten in these schools reached second grade in 2003 and 2004.

Preliminary analyses by the Office of Shared Accountability indicate that student performance on the CTBS in Grade 2 is statistically related to student performance on the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) for Grade 3. The expectation is that students who reach the 50th median national percentile rank this year on the CTBS will be able to meet the state’s proficiency standards on the MSA next year.

“These results are not occurring in a vacuum,” said Dr. Weast. Evidence of increased achievement in Grade 4 last year on the CTBS hinted at the accelerated pace now evident in Grade 2. The pace is likely to accelerate again next year as the third group of students who received the early education reforms reaches Grade 2.

Their ascendancy to the higher ranks of school performance is generating great expectations in the intermediate grades of elementary school, as well as among teachers and principals in middle and high schools,” Dr. Weast said. “Our strategy in the reform effort was to begin with kindergarten and move forward, while also working back from high school.

Already, the indications of more rigorous instruction and achievement grow by the month as data emerge about the percentage of students completing accelerated math in elementary and middle school, Algebra 1 or higher level math in Grade 8, and honors and Advanced Placement courses in high school.”

The full report on the achievment results is available at the link below, along with a link to color charts.

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