Lessons from state school tests

July 02, 1993

At least two lessons can be learned about Howard County based on test results from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, lessons that can be helpful to other jurisdictions.

The first is that the county appears to retain its position as having one of the best school systems in the state. Although officials are still working on a way of ranking school systems based on the tests, there is other evidence of the county's success. More than half of the students in third, fifth and eighth grades scored in the top three levels of math, social studies and science. Also, about 40 percent of students scored in the same range for reading. State officials consider that very good.

So bright was the news of the county's overall achievement, it seems a shame to mention the other lesson of the state tests: African-American students continue to lag behind their counterparts across the board. In reading, African-Americans were 28 percent behind Asians and 22 percent behind whites in scoring at the three highest levels. In math, the disparity was only slightly less.

That is disappointing, particularly because of the county's affluence and the recognized excellence of its schools. Howard is too wealthy, with too many highly educated people living and working within its borders, for this disparity to continue.

The only way for Howard County, or any system with similar concerns, to correct the problem of sub-par achievement among zTC African-American students is to confront it head-on. Too often, discussions that could lead to change grind to a halt because of hypersensitivity over issues of race and class.

The reality is that the Howard County scores show that white students are not immune to failure. That African-Americans suffer disproportionally in low student achievement simply signals a need for new ideas and innovative approaches.

Too often, to be African-American means to be poor. And yet, school officials have been reluctant to recognize that the key to improving the academic success of black students is to address the fact that many schools have proportionally higher concentrations of poor students. Wherever this occurs, in Howard or any other jurisdiction, those circumstances place a heavier burden on schools to give those students who are falling behind the time and attention they need to catch up. In the race for achievement, that may seem like a handicap. In fact, it's the best strategy for schools to accomplish their mission -- making sure that students learn.

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