Anne Arundel fared poorly in a state-wide school system comparison issued yesterday by the state Board of Education, meeting or exceeding state standards in only two of eight areas -- elementary attendance and promotion rates for grades 1 through 6.
The county did not meet those standards on math, citizenship and writing exams given to ninth-graders, attendance for grades 7-12 or the yearly dropout rate in grades 9-12.
The results were issued yesterday by the Governor's Commission on School Performance, a year-old effort by the state to increase the performance levels of students throughout Maryland, County school officials suspected the report card would not contain good news, and last week staged a press conference at which they outlined concerns over how the comparative data had been gathered.
Only 71.7 percent of county ninth-graders passed the math exam, short of the 90 percent standard established by the state; 70.4 percent passed the citizenship exam, where the state norm was 92 percent, and 86 percent passed the writing exam, 10 percentage points below the state norm.
School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton attributed those scores to a shift in emphasis by the state, which is now tracking how well students do the first time they take the test. In the past, students had only to pass the exams before graduation.
"The report does not portray quite as much information as would be useful," Lorton said. "I'm a little disappointed that there is nothing that shows growth, not merely the standard, or how close we are to meeting them."
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Cheryl Wilhoyte said each high school will be working with their associated elementary and middle schools to address shortcomings in test preparation and scores.
The county received an excellent rating for annual promotion of elementary students, scoring 99 percent -- above the state's 98 percent standard.
"I'm surprised by our promotion rate," Lorton said. "It is unusually high. It says a lot about the forward-lookingness of our staff."
But while elementary students are successfully passing from one grade to another, the county has work to do to keep students in school in the upper grades. The annual dropout rate was reported at 5.9 percent -- well above the 1.25 percent state standard rate for grades 9 through 12.
County attendance levels for grades 7-12 also were ranked unsatisfactory at 92.4 percent, with a state standard of 96 percent.
Anne Arundel fared worse than all neighboring school systems except Baltimore City, which failed to meet any of the state standards. Arundel ranked along with smaller counties such as Caroline, which also achieved subpar scores in six areas. Caroline has 4,519 students in its school system, compared to 63,302 for Anne Arundel.
Montgomery and Howard County fared especially well, missing the mark only for attendance in grades 7 through 12.
Lorton and his staff already have outlined strategies for improvement, including plans for a pilot automated calling system at Glen Burnie Senior High. Under this system, parents whose children are absent from school automatically will be called that evening. The county also is seeking increased cooperation from police who spot truants.
State officials admit they still are working out some bugs in the system, ensuring school systems are consistent in reporting information.
Some school systems close on certain religious holidays, for example, while Anne Arundel students who take the day off are counted as absent.
Larry Chamblin, spokesman for the state school board, said it is still working to ensure their annual report cards are fair.
"It's not about punishing anyone," Chamblin said. "Every school system is different, and comparing one county to another is not important. What is important is that the information provides a baseline for where school systems are now, and where they should be five years from now.
"These are five-year standards. No one expects every school system to meet them the first time. There still may be a few wrinkles that need to be re-examined, such as how to deal with religious holidays. But I think that will be a small factor in the overall reporting of the standards."
The state report card will be distributed each November.
Lorton admits that improving the county's standing will have a dramatic impact on the school budget. Though the staff is still calculating what that price tag will be, he fears having to pull money from successful programs that are not measured under the state's criteria in order to meet the new challenges.
"In some cases, significant investments will be required," Lorton said.
"It will cost money. We're looking forward to a couple of lean years."