For the second year in a row, Howard County elementary and middle school pupils scored lower than the previous year in state achievement exams, while two county schools that took new High School Assessment tests ranked among the highest in the state.
Howard administrators were reluctant to make any assessments based on the scores released by the state yesterday, saying they have not had time to analyze the data - and the snow days yesterday and today have only made things worse.
"It wouldn't be responsible of us to make any decisions in terms of instruction just yet until we find out what the patterns were across the state" said Kimberly Statham, the county's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Statham said administrators would need to look at the overall results to determine the validity of the county's and identify any skews that might explain differences in outcomes from previous years. They should be able to offer analysis within a few weeks.
But a few weeks can feel like an eternity for Howard parents, many of whom look to test scores to determine a school's performance and their property values.
Preliminary analysis of results of the final round of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) testing show the average number of county pupils who scored at a satisfactory level dropped from 61.2 percent to 57.9 percent. That is the lowest score in five years and 12 percentage points from the state goal of 70 percent, which school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has pledged to achieve by 2005.
But local school officials are no longer focused on these target numbers because MSPAP will be replaced with new testing this year.
"It's a transition year," O'Rourke said. "A new test and a new approach to assessment might mean we use a different lens to look at it. ... But whatever the new state standards are, our goals and objectives and vision are exactly the same."
`Changing our focus'
Leslie Wilson, Howard's schools testing director, said the district would not pay much attention to the MSPAP results. "The emphasis is on high school assessments and individual achievement and MSPAP doesn't get us that. We're really changing our focus toward every child achieving."
Wilson said the school system is not likely to do much with the MSPAP data, which cost the county more than $8,400 a pupil to obtain, because she does not "want to give the schools the message that this is something [she wants] them to use for planning."
In hindsight, Wilson said, MSPAP probably was not a good use of time or money, but there was no way of knowing that ahead of time and no way to avoid it.
The scores show pupils reading at a satisfactory level dropped by more than five percentage points for third- and fifth-graders, though eighth-grade pupils rose to 40.2 percent satisfactory compared with last year's 39.8.
Fifth-graders made gains on language usage, while third- and eighth-graders lost ground; writing skills went down for all three grades.
"Third grade [is] the area of concern in terms of performance," Statham said, "and fifth grade [stayed] about the same."
The county's three poorest-performing elementary schools on last year's tests - Talbott Springs, Swansfield and Guilford - generally showed strides at the fifth-grade level, but third-graders at the schools produced poorer scores.
The three best-performing elementary schools - Triadelphia Ridge, Northfield and Thunder Hill - traded gains and losses in various subjects to basically match last year's scores.
Triadelphia Ridge third-graders dropped in all categories, but the fifth-graders made gains in all but reading and writing.
Middle school eighth-graders generally repeated their performances from last year, with Clarksville Middle returning high percentages of students scoring satisfactorily and Patuxent Middle faring poorly.
Centennial tops region
At the high school level, Centennial ranked at the top in the Baltimore region, scoring far higher than most schools in the state in each of five achievement categories in new statewide high school assessment exams. River Hill also was among the highest.
Competency was tested in English, biology, geometry, government and algebra.
"We're very pleased," said Lynda Mitic, Centennial's principal. "This is the result of a great deal of very hard work by our staff."
Mitic said she has been able to use the assessment results to identify areas that require improvement, specifically algebra and lagging scores of African-American students, who did not perform as well as their Asian and white counterparts.
The new assessment "certainly has guided our school system to align their goals and focus their curriculum toward improving the quality of instruction in our state," Mitic said, "but it's hard for us to know yet just exactly how we are going to use this information."