Recent scores by Howard County students on two highly visible tests have left nothing for parents and school officials to cheer about. But no one seems to be crying about them either.
In December, scores from the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) exams were released, showing an overall drop of eighth-tenths of a point.
It was the first such drop since 1993 and bumped the district from its coveted first-place ranking among Maryland school systems, yielding that honor to Kent County.
And Tuesday, school officials announced that the overall SAT score for Howard students dropped for the second consecutive year, this time by 10 points, to 1071.
Officials have said they are worried about the falling scores, but refused to view them as a sign of a crisis. And parents - many of whom chose Howard County as a place to live because of the schools' high test scores - appear to be following suit.
"It just doesn't seem to be significant," said parent Courtney Watson, who lives in Ellicott City. "I think we would have to see a long-term, sustained decline before we get excited."
"I am not the least bit worried about them," said Rick Wilson, past president of Wilde Lake Middle School's PTA. "It will be interesting to see in the next two or three years if there really is a flat spot or a dip here, or if this is just a statistical anomaly."
Schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said it is important to remember that the drop in MSPAP scores was less than one point and considered to be statistically insignificant.
"It wasn't like we lost ground," she said. "It's just that someone else gained."
She did say that school officials still were disappointed about both drops because they show that the district isn't making gains - worse, by far, than losing a point or two here and there.
"Our concern is always continuous improvement. We're measuring against ourselves more than others," she said.
That's why two years of falling SAT scores is slightly more troubling to school administrators, though still not alarming, Caplan said.
However, Ellen Flynn Giles, president of the school board's Citizens' Advisory Committee, said the MSPAP tests worry her more.
"We should be improving. And we should be able to close the gap between the achievers and high achievers," Giles said.
But she said no panicked or angry citizens have called her about the drop.
School board Chairman Sandra H. French said board members also hadn't received phone calls or e-mail from worried parents or teachers.
"Personally, I have always felt an urgency for student achievement, whether it's through MSPAP or the functional tests or on the SAT," French said. "But it's not like now we have to drop everything else and do something. We're not sure if this is the beginning of a trend. We are concerned, and we're looking at it."
French said the schools' administrators have begun to look at reasons for the falling scores, particularly on the math sections on the SAT, and are considering ways to remedy the problems - such as making SAT preparation classes required instead of electives.
The board will hear a report in about a month from the district's testing director, Leslie Wilson.
"I was disappointed absolutely with the drop again," French said. "And one could rationalize and say that `Well, we're still above the national level and the state level.' But I'm still concerned. But I'd rather hear [from staff members] what we're doing first, what plans are in place, before we [board members] do anything drastic."