A curriculum overhaul was credited by school officials for Harford County's impressive posting in recently released results of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.
The school system was one of four statewide to achieve across-the-board gains in all three grades taking the tests -- third, fifth and eighth -- and in all six subjects -- reading, writing, language usage, math, science and social studies.
The other three school systems were Allegany, Frederick and Washington counties.
The accomplishment is even sweeter, Harford officials say, because the county school system is among the lowest in per-pupil spending in the state.
"We are seeing the results of changes we made five years ago when MSPAP tests were first introduced by the state," said Ronald R. Eaton, a Harford school board member.
This was accomplished by concentrating money in the classroom -- smaller classes and more materials -- and by overhauling the curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.
"There was an intentional effort on the part of our staff to infuse the curriculum with the information students needed to take these tests," Mr. Eaton said.
On the MSPAP tests, students are asked to solve problems by applying their knowledge in the six subject areas. Many of the answers must be written; some of the problems must be solved by individual students, others by groups.
Harford's results also prove that classroom instruction counts for more than money, Mr. Eaton said.
Barbara P. Canavan, the principal of Southampton Middle in Bel Air, agrees.
"Not everything you do for kids means spending money. When you create an environment that shows you care about them and want them to succeed, it's hard for students not to do well," she said.
Harford, which ranks 15th out of the state's 24 subdivisions in wealth based on real property assessments and income tax collected, is 20th in per pupil spending, according to the Maryland Board of Education.
Only four counties -- Caroline, Garrett, Allegany and Wicomico -- spend less than Harford's $5,447 per pupil, the school system said.
Southampton Middle, with 1,539 students, did the best of the county's eight middle schools, with its eighth-graders meeting the excellent and satisfactory levels in writing, language usage and science, and the satisfactory level in mathematics.
In the other categories, reading and social studies, students did not meet the satisfactory mark.
She said teaching students to take the MSPAP tests is a year-long process.
"We talk to our students and are upfront with them, that doing well on the MSPAPs is not a grade that counts for them but for us -- it shows us how well we are doing in teaching them," she said.
Even schools like Edgewood Middle, which did not meet the standards, showed impressive gains.
"We are headed in the right direction," said Principal Robert L. Depuy.
Eighth-graders at Edgewood Middle who reached the satisfactory level in reading more than doubled from 12.3 percent in 1994 to 25.7 percent in 1995. The number reaching the satisfactory level in social studies increased from 22.9 percent in 1994 to 36.9 percent in 1995.
"Our teachers are working very, very hard to provide the youngsters with the classroom experiences they need to be successful," said Mr. Depuy.
A classroom problem like determining water quality might require students to do research using math and science skills. The students then might form conclusions from what they have learned, write about the problem and be prepared to defend their results, Mr. Depuy said.
"This is what MSPAP asks students to do -- to take snippets of math, reading, science and social studies and then communicate that in writing form," he said.
The school is fine-tuning its classroom instruction so students will do better when they take the tests again in May, he said.
And schools that did well on the MSPAP, such as Norrisville Elementary, also are looking for ways to improve.
"Our focus this year is to improve our scores in reading," said Rick Russell, principal at Norrisville. Norrisville is stressing "cross-grade grouping" where students are put into reading classes based on their scores, not on grades.
The school, in northern Harford, has 11 small reading groups, combining students from second and third grade, and from fourth and fifth grade.
Norrisville's third-graders scored excellent and satisfactory in writing, language usage and science, and satisfactory in reading, mathematics and social studies. Fifth-graders, who scored excellent and satisfactory in language usage, mathematics and social studies and satisfactory in science, did not meet the standards in reading or writing.