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Third Graders Lead County Progress on State Assessments

June 15, 2004
This year’s third grade students outpaced all other grade levels in the percentage of students achieving at or above the proficiency level in reading and mathematics on the Maryland School Assessment for the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). Most significantly, the achievement gap by race and ethnicity was narrowed and improvements were made in the performance of students receiving special services.

The greatest gains were among schools with the highest levels of poverty, where the average increase was double the countywide improvement. The achievements reflect the continued progress of children who were the first students to experience the kindergarten reforms implemented by the school system four years ago.

“These same students achieved high levels of performance last year in second grade on nationally standardized tests, and they have continued a pace of accelerated performance this year,” said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report today to the Board of Education.

By far, the most dramatic improvement occurred at Broad Acres Elementary School, which has the highest poverty rate of any school in the system and had 75 percent of third grade students scoring at or above the proficiency requirement, an increase of 28.3 percentage points.

Indeed, the average gains in Grade 3 among the 15 schools with the highest levels of poverty, which also have the highest concentrations of African American and Hispanic students, was 15.8 percent—double the countywide increase.
These schools have been implementing innovative academic reforms consistent with achieving state and national performance requirements.

Overall, more than 73 percent of all students in Grades 3, 5, 8, and 10 scored at or above the state’s proficiency requirement in reading. In mathematics, more than 74 percent of students in Grades 3 and 5 scored at or above the state’s proficiency requirement, with 59 percent of students in Grade 8 achieving this level, an anomaly that appears to have occurred statewide. The school system outperformed the state proficiency rate at every grade level, according to data released today by the Maryland State Department of Education.

The state has not released data on whether individual schools met the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and we do not expect to receive that information until the state receives federal approval for new criteria to measure AYP. In addition, local performance data for Grades 4, 6, and 7 were not released because proficiency standards for those grades have not been set. Nonetheless, it is clear from the countywide data and a review of individual school results in Grade 3 that impressive gains were made throughout the system.

Greatest Gains Made in Grade 3

Of all the students in Montgomery County taking the state assessment in Grades 3, 5, 8, and 10 this spring, by far the greatest achievements were made in third grade (see Figure 1). The class not only gained the highest proficiency rate, but also significantly narrowed the achievement gap by race and ethnicity. The third grade performance underscores the continued effect of the early elementary school reforms begun four years ago.

More than three-fourths of all third grade students this year—77.6 percent in reading and 78.8 percent in mathematics—scored at or above the state’s proficiency standard and exceeded the statewide performance in reading (71 percent) and mathematics (72.2 percent). The achievement reflects an increase of 7.8 percentage points in reading and 2.9 percentage points in mathematics, the largest gain in reading and the second largest gain in mathematics of any grade level in the system.

The gains in reading and mathematics were nearly universal among Grade 3 subgroups. Indeed, the greatest individual group gains were made by African American and Hispanic third grade students (see Figure 2). African American students gained 13.4 percentage points, with a proficiency rate of 64.5 percent in reading and a 62.8 percent proficiency rate in mathematics (an increase of 6.5 percentage points). Hispanic students gained 14.4 percentage points in reading, for a proficiency rate of 59.7 percent and 8 percentage points in mathematics, achieving a 64.8 percent proficiency rate. Indeed, proficiency levels for African American and Hispanic students increased at every grade level in reading and mathematics, except 10th grade reading.

Results of Planned Reforms in Elementary School

The growing skill levels being achieved by this year’s third grade students are the result of the planned reform initiatives undertaken initially in kindergarten and now encompassing kindergarten through third grade. Repeated assessments of this particular group of students have consistently demonstrated increasingly greater levels of skill development, particularly in reading, as each successive year has produced improved levels of achievement among students who initially were thought by some to be too young for more rigorous academics. The development was evident in the formative assessments of early literacy skills three years ago in kindergarten and then again in first grade. Last month’s report on the second grade student achievement on a nationally standardized assessment hinted at the potential for this third grade class to set record levels of performance, and that subsequent classes (now in earlier grades) are poised to set even higher levels of achievement in the years to come.

“The impressive gains underscore the incredible commitment of teachers, principals, and the many people who support them in our school system,” said Dr. Weast. He noted that in November 1999, when the Board of Education published the initial Our Call to Action, a goal was established to improve the performance of students throughout the school system, with particular attention to students challenged by poverty, language, and disability. In subsequent years, first the state and then the federal government set new requirements for student achievement, culminating with the national effort under NCLB.

“By the time the federal initiative was approved in 2001, the Montgomery County efforts were well under way to improve early elementary curriculum, strengthen staff development, use individual student performance measures, and provide the foundation necessary for pushing ahead,” Dr. Weast said. “The results of those efforts are now apparent.”

Gains Made by Students Receiving Special Services

The superintendent said it also is important to note that the improved performance among third grade students included those students receiving special services, including English language learners, students with disabilities, and students in the federal meal program (see Figure 3).

In fact, the greatest gains among students participating in the Free and Reduced-price Meals System (FARMS) occurred in third grade this year. The scores increased by 14.7 percentage points to a proficiency rate of 57.4 percent in reading and by 7.8 percentage points in mathematics for a proficiency rate of 60.1. Students in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) increased their scores by 10.8 percentage points, to a proficiency rate of 43.2 percent in reading; and by 8.1 percentage points to a proficiency rate of 52.7 percent in mathematics. For the first time, the majority of third grade students receiving special education services achieved proficiency: 53.2 percent in reading (up 6.8 percentage points) and 51.1 percent in mathematics (up 4.6 percentage points)—the highest levels of achievement among special education students at any grade level.

“The achievement in Grade 3 this year marks another significant milestone in the school system’s successful reform initiatives in the early grades,” Dr. Weast said. “Our goal, however, must be to find ways of maintaining our pace of improvement and providing increased opportunities as students progress into and beyond middle school.

“I believe that the success of the elementary schools in early literacy and reading instruction should serve as a model,” Dr. Weast said. “Elementary educators have demonstrated, without a doubt, that children have a vast potential to learn and succeed within an environment of rigorous expectations.”

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