In a long-awaited response to community criticisms of the emphasis on self-esteem over academics in Howard County's middle schools, top school system officials said yesterday they intend to refocus sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders on achievement.
But in responding to separate evaluations of Howard's middle schools last fall by a citizens committee and outside consultants, the officials stopped short of endorsing such recommendations as grouping students in classes by abilities.
Officials did announce that they will increase the time spent on basic instruction and establish tests and standards of performance for each middle school grade.
"It is our intent to redefine a strategic direction for the middle school program in terms of results, to hold ourselves accountable for continual improvement toward the standards we have set and to communicate these results to all stakeholders," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.
Yesterday's 120-page response summarizes what school officials think of the recommendations made in a 180-page report -- with 800 pages of supporting data -- after an 18-month evaluation of middle schools. The report was released in October.
The report actually contained two evaluations of Howard middle schools. One was by a 16-member citizens committee that called for sweeping changes to improve academic achievement, saying middle schools had lost sight of that primary goal.
The other evaluation -- by two university professors hired as consultants -- produced recommendations that frequently differed from those of the citizens committee.
Both evaluations -- particularly the one by the citizens committee -- struck a chord among many Howard parents, who long have complained that middle schools focus more on self-esteem than academics and at times seem to be directionless.
At issue is the changing view of middle schools. For many years, education officials have tended to view the role of middle schools as providing a gentle transition from elementary school to high school. But a growing number of parents appear to want middle schools to spend more time preparing students for the academic rigors of high school.
In response to the evaluations, Howard educators immediately took several steps over the winter. They cast aside the middle school philosophy that was frequently criticized for emphasizing self-esteem and publicly renounced what they called a "misperception" that honor rolls had been banned from middle schools.
Educators also set up 20 subcommittees to look at the evaluations' recommendations in such areas as guidance, staff development, discipline, reading, testing, curriculum, special education and the gifted-and-talented program.
Based on the subcommittees' reports, Hickey announced yesterday achievement standards he plans to set for all middle school students and his top priorities for meeting them.
The achievement standards proposed by Hickey would require all students to pass the reading and math Maryland Functional Tests by eighth grade. The functional tests -- which the state requires all students to pass to graduate from high school -- check basic skills and are passed by most Howard students before they enter high school.
Hickey also said he wants students to show they have mastered the skills and content of their grade level and that he wants all middle schools to show progress toward achieving the "excellent" standards of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- the set of tests given annually to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.
Hickey's top priorities for reforming middle schools and meeting the standards include:
Increasing the time spent on instruction in such areas as language arts, reading, social studies, math, science and foreign language. If necessary, some portions of the schedule will be eliminated to create more time for academics, he said.
Setting aside time for instruction for students who have not passed the functional tests.
Developing exams to check students' mastery of their grade-level content and skills.
Creating a grading system that reflects how well students have mastered their grade-level content and skills.
Putting the middle school report cards on computers, allowing school officials to track student performance.
Giving teachers of gifted-and-talented classes more training and redefining the purpose of such classes.
Yesterday's school system response offered many more recommendations than the few chosen by Hickey as priorities. Hickey said other recommendations will be tackled later, once the priorities have been implemented.
The subcommittees recommended, among other things:
The creation of summer remediation programs for students who have fallen behind, at a cost of $70,000 per 50-student program. Students who don't catch up to their grade-level standards should be held back, but not more than one year in middle school.
Setting up a task force to revise the middle school report card for 1998-1999.