Howard County, lower in wealth and per-pupil expenditures than Montgomery County, tied with its larger, richer neighbor for top honors among Maryland school systems in "report cards" issued by the State Department of Education Monday.
Howard and Montgomery were the only two school systems in the state to receive satisfactory or excellent ratings in all but one category. Howard got passing grades in seven of eight categories, Montgomery in six of seven. Montgomery County students did not take the Maryland citizenship test.
The report cards rated Maryland's 24 public school districts on elementary and secondary school attendance, dropout and promotion rates and student scores on the state functional reading, mathematics, writing and citizenship tests.
The only area where Howard and Montgomery public schools failed to meet the state standards was attendance of students in grades seven through 12.
Howard County schools fell 1 percent short of the 94 percent set by the state as satisfactory, Montgomery County 1.9 percent short.
School board Vice Chairman Deborah D. Kendig pronounced herself "very pleased" with the results, but warned against comparing Howard with other counties.
"That shouldn't be what these report cards are about," Kendig said.
"This is our baseline data. Next year we should be comparing ourselves to where we are this year."
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey assessed the report card as "not that bad, but on the other hand, it shows a lot of room for improvement." He referred to areas such as Maryland functional reading test scores, where Howard schools are just three-tenths of a percentage point below an "excellent" rating.
County high school principals are already working to raise student attendance, although some criticize the standards as unrealistic.
"That 94 and 96 percent (standard for excellent rating) are awfully high," said Edgar Markley, Mount Hebron High School principal. "If the community wants that, there's going to have to be some rethinking, because a lot of what we deal with is dental appointments, college visits and on and on."
Administrators at Hebron worked hard last year to bring up attendance through rewards to the first-period class with the highest attendance, tight sanctions for lateness and daily calls to the homes of absent students.
Markley said attendance rose from 91.7 percent the previous year to 92.7 percent in 1989-1990. "We thought we had really done a lot and now that's not even satisfactory," he said.
At Hammond High School, the administration started a quarterly surprise reward for students with perfect attendance. At the end of the first three months of the school year, 320 students qualified for free sundaes served by Principal David A. Bruzga.
Attendance at Hammond in the first two months of this school year was nearly 2 percent higher than in September and October 1989. Attendance was 96.1 percent in September of this year, 94.5 percent in September 1989; 94.9 percent in October of this year, 92.6 percent in October 1989.
Bruzga said attendance has been raised by the rewards, the parent volunteers who call the homes of absent students and teachers who can make more calls, thanks to new school phones. But he said the state's 94 percent standard is going to be "very challenging" to meet.
Both Howard and Glenelg High School have staff members making phone calls to the homes of absent students. Howard Assistant Principal James Hillen did not have statistics, but said absentee lists are shorter since the program began. Glenelg Assistant Principal Clarence E. Miller said attendance rose from 91 percent in 1988-1989 to 94 percent last year.
At Atholton High, students with perfect attendance each quarter receive "Atholton pride" pins and become eligible for a drawing for gift certificates. Attendance rose from 90 percent in 1988-1989 to 91 percent in 1989-1990.
The supporting information on each county supplied with the report cards makes it appear that Howard County does more with less money than Montgomery, but Board Vice Chairman Kendig cautioned against that type of analysis.
"I don't mean to denigrate the per-pupil expenditures. They do make a difference," she said. But Howard County has a very high level of parental education, a fact that doesn't show up in the state's information, she pointed out.