Struggle amid success

Tests: As most of Howard's pupils thrive, educators find improving the lowest-performing schools is a difficult task.

February 24, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Measured by test scores, Howard County has the best school system in Maryland. But it is a signal of the education crisis facing the state that even in Howard a growing number of schools appear to be failing their students.

When scores from the latest annual state exams were released last month, Howard Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said he felt disappointment and frustration. Since then, he and top aides have been huddling at board headquarters shaping a plan to improve the performance of the county's lowest-performing schools.

To many educators, in Howard and elsewhere, that effort has far-reaching implications. If Maryland's most successful school district - with its bountiful resources and community commitment to education - can't accelerate learning, then who can?

At the heart of the Howard educators' worries are five schools that fall far short of both the county's coveted standing and state goals for achievement on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.

More than 60 percent of Howard County children earned a "satisfactory" score on the tests. The state wants 70 percent of all pupils statewide to achieve that score.

But in five elementary schools - Dasher Green, Laurel Woods, Guilford, Swansfield and Talbott Springs - only about 37 percent of pupils scored that well.

The system has never had more than two schools score in the 30s in a year, said Howard testing director Leslie Wilson.

"That's a wake-up call for us," she said.

In four of the five schools, the most recent scores fell from the previous year's results - with double-digit drops for three - despite a steady and focused influx of resources. In some cases, scores at these schools have been decreasing for several years.

Laurel Woods posted almost a 7-point increase last year, but overall, the school's scores have been up and down so much, they're essentially flat.

All of these underperforming schools share similar characteristics. Almost all are in low- or moderate-income areas with large sections of apartments and rental housing. The poverty rate, as measured by pupils who receive free or reduced-price lunches, ranges from two to nearly five times the norm for Howard as a whole. And all have high proportions of minority pupils.

The "mobility" rates in the schools vary widely. Some have surprisingly high numbers of new children enrolling and withdrawing throughout the school year, but Dasher Green Elementary's rate is close to normal. Three of the five struggling schools are in Columbia villages where they serve neighborhoods of relatively new and well-kept homes.

Regardless of the variances, all of the schools have been struggling with discouraging test scores for least three years.

Many of the problems educators face in attempting to close the achievement gaps are well known. Finding answers, even in Howard - where education is like religion - won't be easy, experts say.

Among the common difficulties:

Large numbers of pupils entering or leaving the school each year.

A disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers.

A high proportion of poor children as measured by the numbers receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

The schools also suffer from low parent involvement, a need for smaller classes and a lack of preschool programs, some educators say.

The schools share other common problems, experts say, including too few African-American or Hispanic role models in leadership positions, long lead times between the implementation of education programs and their accurate evaluation and an underlying unwillingness of middle-class parents to sacrifice "equity" for the betterment of other children.

"It's a pretense to think we're going to do away with our achievement gaps unless we do away with some of the social inequalities," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a national organization that works to improve public education. "To do that means we have to bring the kids at the bottom up faster. You have to spend more time and attention on the poorest kids. It's very hard politically, very hard."

Jennings said school systems such as Howard's - where parents are highly educated and taxpayers spend a great portion of their incomes on education - feel a great deal of pressure when it comes to making tough decisions, such as putting a cutting-edge preschool in a poor neighborhood instead of in the schools their children will be attending.

"Because middle-class people want good quality preschool, too," he said. "Everybody wants the best for their kids."

Many of the five lowest-performing schools in Howard County do have extra resources. Depending on their needs, they may have additional teaching positions, before- and after-school programs, summer school, counselors, psychologists or community liaisons.

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