The latest round of MSPAP results shows some of the county's focus schools so improved that Superintendent Michael E. Hickey plans to tell the school board Thursday that at least one might not need the extra resources it once did to succeed.
The progress of some focus schools is the bright spot of this year's Maryland School Performance Assessment Program results, which showed an overall decline. The results were released Wednesday.
After six years of gradual increases in Howard County, scores of nearly two-thirds of elementary schools and half the middle schools fell, bringing the county's composite score down eight-tenths of a point, to 59.3.
Officials said they are disappointed by the decrease, but are encouraged that six of the 13 focus schools taking the tests improved, indicating that the focus school concept -- providing extra resources to the lowest performing schools -- can work over time.
Three elementary and three middle focus schools did better on this year's tests: Jeffers Hill, Laurel Woods and Talbott Springs elementaries and Mayfield Woods, Owen Brown and Patuxent Valley middle schools. Owen Brown produced the biggest jump in the county, 13.9 points, raising its composite score from 38 to 51.9. Jeffers Hill increased 9.5 points, from 50.8 to 60.3.
Jeffers Hill's score is higher than the county's overall score of 59.3, and it marks the second year in a row the school has improved. Over the years, many focus schools' scores have fluctuated.
"I was gratified to see some improved performance, especially in some of our focus schools," Hickey said. "Looking at the scores, there'll be some, like Jeffers Hill, that probably will be pulled off the focus list. There may be some others that may be put on."
In his report to the school board Thursday on progress in the county focus schools, Hickey said he might recommend some schools receive the designation, entitling them to extra resources such as extended-day kindergarten, a full-time guidance counselor, two additional teaching positions, an alternative program for disruptive youths, an intensive and costly Reading Recovery program and a preschool program for at-risk children.
It is unclear whether schools removed from the focus list would lose those coveted resources immediately. According to schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan, Hickey, in reference to Jeffers Hill, said those details were to be worked out. Caplan also said Hickey probably would suggest the school keep the resources for at least a year.
Hickey did not say which schools might be placed in the focus school category. There is no particular MSPAP score that automatically lands a school on the focus school list. Hickey said a small dip in scores this year probably won't mean immediate intervention.
"Some of these schools, they're doing the right thing and it's just going to require our patience and our support," he said.
It took Jeffers Hill, for example, six years to raise its score to 60.3 on the tests, which evaluate how well a school is teaching pupils in six subjects. In 1993, the school's composite score was 43.5.
"We've made significant gains from where we were to where we are," said Jeffers Hill Principal Steve Zagami.
Zagami said the turnaround was long and hard-fought, requiring a major restructuring of the school's organization and revising the school improvement plan.
Of the myriad changes Zagami implemented when he took the helm of Jeffers Hill two years ago, three were paramount, he said: strengthening the discipline policies so that they were consistent throughout the school; tweaking teachers' daily schedules so resource teachers and specialists could reach more pupils during the day; and carefully administering and scoring quarterly assessments of all pupils.
The quarterly assessments are based on the district's curriculum, which closely resembles standards set by the state. The quarterly tests also look very much like MSPAP tests.
"We analyze the students' work to see where are the things they understood very well all the way down to things they didn't understand. So it gives us a pattern to see where we need to remediate," Zagami said. "The data that I collect from these assessments tells me how my students are learning the curriculum. At the same time, I can use it to predict how well they'll do on the MSPAP. After we analyze the data, we use it for instructional purposes."
Teachers may find groups of pupils who need help in certain areas and concentrate on those concepts.
The intense focus helps, Zagami said.
"If I look at last year's quarterly assessments from first quarter to fourth quarter, we saw increases every quarter in the number of students who achieved satisfactory and the number of students who achieved excellent," he said.
Twenty-five percent of last year's fifth-graders scored satisfactorily in reading on the first-quarter's assessment, Zagami said. At the end of the year, 82 percent did.