Arundel students struggle for a C

More fail to make grade after number, rigor of courses are increased

December 28, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

This fall - two months after Anne Arundel County high school students embarked on more rigorous courses under a countywide initiative - a higher percentage of them failed to earn at least a C average compared with last year.

Administrators say that the data, obtained by The Sun and gleaned from report cards sent home last month, may indicate that students had not adjusted to a heavier load of classes or to courses that are more challenging.

Countywide, 30 percent of students earned grade-point averages of less than 2.0, or a C average, compared with last year's 26 percent - a number that Superintendent Eric J. Smith already considered high.

"With any change, there are growing pains," said Lucinda Hudson, principal of Broadneck High, a top-performing school that experienced one of the largest increases. Twenty-two percent of students at that school - up from 16 percent in the same quarter last year - failed to earn at least a C average.

The grades have prompted intense self-examination within the school administration, which implemented changes this year, including longer class periods and more college-level offerings, to increase the academic rigor of county high schools.

"There are adjustments that need to be made by us and the students," Smith said.

Efforts are under way to help struggling students, he said. Students will be permitted to adjust their class loads next semester, and administrators plan to expand after-school study opportunities. Smith said the grades should improve over time, as students take advantage of extra help and get used to the new academic climate.

Officials began compiling quarterly reports last year on the number of students who earn less than a 2.0 GPA. Such students are referred to as "ineligible," because they cannot participate in sports and other extracurricular activities until their grades improve.

The concept of ineligibility was designed to prevent students involved in such activities from letting their grades slip, but educators often use the term to discuss the academic performance of the general student population.

Officials say some students may have been overwhelmed this fall by the many changes prompted by county and state initiatives.

The schools have opened wider the doors to college-level Advanced Placement courses, increasing the number of students taking at least one AP class by 75 percent. School officials speculate that some students may be struggling in those classes because they are not used to advanced work.

But AP students are not the only ones facing increased rigor.

School officials have done away with courses judged to be below grade-level, including a Concepts of Algebra class, and have directed teachers to require more writing and critical thinking from students in all classes.

Also, more high school students than ever are enrolled in algebra, partly because students in the future will be required to pass a state assessment in the subject to graduate.

Another big change is the uniform schedule that all 12 county high schools are using, under which students are enrolled in more classes than before.

They now take eight yearlong classes - four 86-minute classes on one day, and four different courses the next. Previously, they were enrolled either in six yearlong classes or four classes per semester, depending on the type of schedule their school used.

Broadneck High's principal said students may be having trouble organizing themselves in the alternating A-day, B-day schedule, which resembles a college schedule.

"One of the [difficulties] we have picked up on is the homework," Hudson said. "I think there's a little confusion about that."

School officials say the problems were not a surprise. "We anticipated that there would be [lower grades] as we raised the academic standards," Smith said. "There's going to be some impact until kids learn how to step up to the increased challenges."

Meantime, officials are looking for ways to help students meet higher standards. Those returning to pre-algebra in the second semester, which begins in February, will be expected to return to algebra next year, Smith said.

Students struggling in AP classes will be encouraged to take support courses next semester that correspond to AP subjects. To make room in their schedules, students could drop classes that are not graduation requirements.

The administration also plans to give schools more flexibility to help students outside the traditional school day.

Principals recently received permission to open their "twilight schools" to any courses in which students need extra help. Previously, the after-school makeup sessions were targeted only at freshmen and in subjects tested by the state.

Evening and summer school also may be used to help students become comfortable with the increased demands, officials said. School staff also plan to help students devise homework and study skills to fit the new schedule.

At Broadneck, the principal has learned one strategy from students who are earning good grades: They do their homework for A-day classes after school on B-day. "Now we need to communicate that to other students," Hudson said.

She said she is not discouraged by the percentage of students who did not earn a C average, though her school had one of the highest increases in the county.

"If you just have a knee-jerk reaction, you just think, `Oh, my God,'" she said. "But if you just stop and think, this has been a huge change in the history of our school."

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