School goals given praise

County councilmen laud initiative to end achievement gap

`Incredibly ambitious'

Officials seek 70% of students scoring satisfactory by 2005

Howard County

April 03, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

County Council members seemed delighted yesterday with an ambitious school board plan to attack the achievement gap among students in Howard County schools.

The plan, outlined by school officials last month, aims to have at least 70 percent of Howard's students scoring at the satisfactory level on state standardized tests by 2005, and to eliminate the achievement gap among white, black and Hispanic students by 2007. Although stressing efforts to improve student performance in every county school, the plan targets 15 - mostly older Columbia schools for attention.

But a key to this plan is that it is aimed at all children who need help - not just those in certain schools.

"We know we have some kids in every school that have needs," said Kimberly Statham, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Statham said the county wants to involve parents more in the education of their children, limit curriculum differences from school to school and do more for children who move from one school to another.

County officials have been concerned for several years about lagging test scores in some older schools as racial and economic diversity in the county grows - an issue that sparked creation of a citizens' committee that produced a report two years ago called "No Child Left Behind."

"I'm very pleased with what you are doing," said council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat and five-term council veteran who has questioned school officials repeatedly about the problems.

"I began to get frustrated," he said after the regular quarterly meeting between the council and the school board held in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. "I've been here 20 years, and it seems like we've been treading water."

Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said, "It absolutely is the right direction. They are incredibly ambitious goals, but it is important that we set them very high." Guzzone said he would post on his office wall a graph showing the hoped-for path of rising student test scores and plot the changes as they occur.

Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, called the plan "a huge, huge essential first step," and a big change from attitudes three years ago when, she said, "there was a definite unwillingness to admit" that equity problems in Howard's top-rated school system existed.

School officials said yesterday that the changes can be partially seen in the larger numbers of students who come from poor families or do not primarily speak English.

In 1990, Howard County had 289 children whose primary language was not English - compared with 1,271 last year. Similarly, the county had 1,345 students who got free or reduced-price lunches in 1990, compared with 4,213 last year. Howard's proportion of black students increased from 14 percent to 18 percent during that period, while whites dropped from 79 percent to 69 percent. Asian and Hispanic students also increased from a combined 7 percent to 13 percent.

Despite those changes, Leslie A. Wilson, the school system's director of student assessments and program evaluation, said most third-graders performing below grade level have been in county schools since kindergarten. She said that last year 600 third-graders were performing below grade level and 73 percent of them were in county schools since first grade.

James P. O'Donnell, a new member of the school board, said the plan's goals are daunting and "maybe over-courageous."

"We're looking at a 17 percent increase in MSPAP scores, and a 75 percent increase in African-American and Hispanic scores. They do this in business, not in a school system," he said.

But school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said the plan is intended to be the subject of public discussion the next few years, during which school officials expect to be held accountable.

"This will be our work for the next decade," Statham said.

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