Howard County will reach the state's goal of at least 70 percent of its students scoring satisfactorily on the annual MSPAP achievement exams by 2005, local school officials said last night, and gaps between that state standard and test performance by African-American and Hispanic students will be eliminated by 2007.
That's the crux of an ambitious plan announced by the school system's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Kimberly Statham, in response to a disappointing trend of flat or declining scores on the yearly Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.
Although 61.2 percent of Howard's children scored satisfactorily on the tests last year - the closest in the state to reaching the 70 percent standard - the composite score declined.
In addition, five county elementary schools scored in the low- to mid-30s on the exams, the largest number of Howard schools ever to score so low.
System testing director Leslie Wilson told the school board that the MSPAP results show that district's efforts were not working. After 10 years, Howard's students were no longer improving and the district had made no progress in closing the achievement gaps, she said.
"For our county to see improvement, we have got to see improvement in our lower-performing schools," Wilson said.
Statham's plan - though it addresses all students, even high-performing ones in all schools - will target the county's 15 schools with the lowest test scores or highest percentages of poor students: Bryant Woods, Dasher Green, Guilford, Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs elementaries; Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown, Patuxent Valley and Wilde Lake middle schools; and Long Reach and Oakland Mills high schools.
Those schools will be the focus of a new sub-department of Statham's curriculum and instruction division. The School Improvement Unit will work with lagging schools to "identify and coordinate interventions that provide the designated schools with the capacity to improve teaching and learning and ultimately accelerate student achievement," according to the plan.
The sub-department will work intensively with principals and teachers in those schools to accelerate learning, Statham said. Accountability will increase, as well, she said.
One major change that unit members will oversee is the restructuring of schools' mandatory improvement plans. Those plans, which exist in every school, will be overhauled, then supervised by Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett, and approved by Statham.
"Those practices which have been determined to be ineffective based on results will be eliminated," Plunkett said. "We expect and will demand only the best."
In addition, the designated schools will take advantage of more before-and-after school and summer school programs, to provide struggling children with more time in class.
Statham said the plan would include training for teachers to prepare them to persevere in the county's worst-performing schools.
The plan represents a shift in philosophy from previous administrations, which gave principals free rein over their schools, regardless of how well or poorly students were performing. Struggling schools received extra resources, but no real guidance - unless asked for - on how to use the resources or make improvements.
Member James P. O'Donnell expressed amazement that the staff might increase African-American students' scores to 82 percent by 2007, when the scores have increased just 6 percent in the past three years.
"These are not lofty goals. They are grounded in reasonable, sound and statistical calculation," Statham said. "Doing things differently will yield these kind of results."