Recently released state High School Assessment (HSA) scores indicate that Blair is among the worst-scoring schools in MCPS. No English for Speakers of other Languags (ESOL) Blazers passed the English 1 HSA exam.
In Algebra I, Blair's pass rate was lowest of the 23 high schools in Montgomery County; in biology, 18th out of 23; in English 1, 19th out of 23; and in Government, the exam which the highest percentage of Blazers passed, 21st out of 23. "We're at the bottom of the barrel," said Principal Phillip Gainous. "It can't get any worse. We can only go up."
The drop in Blair pass rates from 2002 to 2003 varied from a six percent decrease in the English 1 HSA to a 24 percent decrease in the Algebra HSA.
Beginning with the class of 2009, all students will be required to pass the four instated HSAs to graduate, according to a Dec. 3 decision by the Maryland State Board of Education (MSBE). Had passing the tests been necessary for graduation last spring, less than 12 percent of Blair's Algebra I students would have earned a high-school diploma.
Gainous admitted that the school as a whole was initially so stunned by the unexpectedly low results that he "gave them some space to get over the shock."
ESOL department head Joseph Bellino, like Gainous, did not immediately act in response to the low HSA scores because he felt that state officials must reconsider the format of the tests for ESOL students. "Yes, our students need to get better at it," he said, "but we're not preparing kids especially for the HSA; we're teaching them English."
Bellino identified several problems with administering HSA exams to ESOL students, who take the same test given to non-ESOL students. Even students in ESOL 5, the highest-level ESOL class, might be unprepared for the HSAs, Bellino explained, as some ESOL 5 students have only been in the country a few years. He cited studies that have shown a student needs a minimum of five to ten years studying a language before they can compete academically in that language.
Bellino added that ESOL students need extended time and bilingual dictionaries during the HSAs to overcome language barrier problems. He noted that special education students are given extended time on the HSAs, yet ESOL students are not.
NSL Government teacher David West agreed with Bellino, stating that in his experience, bilingual dictionaries are a necessity on standardized exams like the HSAs. "If I have a student who speaks Creole and there isn't a Creole dictionary, is the test fair for him?" asked West. "My students are feeling frustrated, bitter, and some have lost motivation."
Moreover, West said that many ESOL students must juggle many responsibilities, only one of which is learning English.
Bill Reinhard, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Department of Education, acknowledged that the issues Bellino and West raise "are certainly problems that a number of schools have found to be true." However, he reasoned that schools take time to adjust to new exams and said that the MSBE is working to solve current difficulties.
Since the release of the results, Gainous said that Blair teachers and administrators have gathered for a retreat to study how to improve scores. "We need to step back, take a deep breath and assess the results," explained Gainous. "Then, let's revisit every [teacher's curriculum] plans."
Blair staff members have also worked year-round to steadily improve testing skills, according to Assistant Principal Richard Wilson, who oversees all of Blair's standardized testing. The administration has set up teacher workshops to aid teachers in dealing with overall achievement and has pushed for teachers to emphasize writing by including Brief Constructed Responses (BCRs) in daily warm-ups and Extended Constructed Responses (ECRs) in classroom assignments.
In the math department, resource teacher Barbara Hofman said teachers have already begun to reevaluate and restructure algebra classes, altering the curriculum to place less emphasis on the county final exam and more emphasis on the HSA exam. In addition, efforts have been put in place to maintain Blair's Algebra Progressive Program, which allows students to continue learning algebra course material into the summer.
County officials have also taken steps to improve algebra scores throughout MCPS. "We're so concerned about algebra that we are doing a countywide evaluation of the algebra program by visiting schools," said Carol Blum, MCPS Director of High School Instruction. Blum added that this year MCPS has released new instructional guides to teachers that include sample BCRs, ECRs and grading rubrics.
While Bellino and other Blair teachers are struggling to adapt to the high-stakes tests, many have expressed frustration in being unable to analyze the actual HSA exam and each student's individual performance. Currently, the MSBE only releases results by the percent of students who pass each subject. Such vague feedback has prevented teachers and administrators from pinpointing specific problem spots on which to concentrate their instruction, according to several Blair staff members. "We ask, ‘Where did the students do poorly?'" said Hofman. "It's like shooting in the dark at a target."
Blum explained that the state would be including subtest scores with the release of the 2004 HSA results. Reinhard added that the subtest scores would be broken down by various demographic factors.
Although passing the HSAs has proven to be a challenge, Gainous still maintains high expectations for Blair. "I know folks are working hard. I know we're going to do better than this," said Gainous. "We've struggled through these tests, like the Maryland Functional tests, before and we've adjusted and climbed to the top."
At press time, the PTSA was analyzing the HSA scores, and will possibly discuss the results in their next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 17. "We're going to be looking at the situation and see how the PTSA can serve the school and help the students do better," said Kathi Yu, PTSA Vice President of Academic Achievement.
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