Eight months after school officials launched major academic initiatives, fewer Anne Arundel County students have earned a place on the academic honor rolls compared with a year ago - and more have failed to earn at least a C average - according to data from the latest report cards.
The results, part of an overall downturn in grades this year, were not unexpected, school officials said, because students are adjusting to a heavier load of classes and tougher courses.
"The rigor has been raised," Superintendent Eric J. Smith said. "That, I think, has had an impact."
School officials, however, caution that they have not examined data beyond the past three years to see whether such fluctuations are typical. For example, the number of students who failed to earn at least a C average rose in 2002 and this year but dropped slightly last year.
In recent years, officials have begun looking more closely at such data as indicators of a school's or school district's performance. But they say there are many other standards to consider, such as the standardized assessments given yearly by the state.
Despite the general downturn, there has been a slight improvement in student performance in recent months. About 350 more high school students earned a C average or better on their report cards last month than did in November during the first grading period.
But school officials say the persistently high percentage of students who earn lower than a C average - 28.3 percent last month, up from 27 percent a year ago - remains a source of frustration.
For those students, sports and other extracurricular activities are off-limits until they can raise their grade-point averages above 2.0, or the equivalent of a C average. "If you have kids that are not allowed to engage in the broad range of school life, that does have a negative impact on how they see themselves in the school," Smith said.
The concept of "academic ineligibility" was developed to discourage students involved in sports, drama, music and other activities from letting their grades slip.
School officials are also closely watching honor roll numbers, which have dropped for two consecutive years.
Last month, 13,204 middle and high school students, or 32 percent, qualified for the honor rolls either by earning straight A's (for the principal's honor roll) or a B average or better (for the regular honor roll).
In April last year, however, nearly 1,000 more students were on the honor rolls, although the county's schools had a lower enrollment.
"We're asking students to do more and at a higher level than in the past," Smith said. "The expectation is [that] students will perform at a higher level ... over time."
Chesapeake High School's principal, Harry Calender, says he finds it more useful to look at the total number of A's, B's, C's, D's and E's earned by his 1,940 students. He then delves into individual grade levels and subjects to look for areas of weakness.
For example, students at the Pasadena school earned 583 A's in English classes for the third grading period, about 200 more than for the first semester. But Calender said he plans to focus his attention on 11th-grade English classes, which had a higher-than-normal percentage of E's.
Calender said he is not too concerned yet about the drop in honor roll numbers to 501 students, from 867 last year. Two years are not enough to establish a trend, he said.
But, he added, "if we don't see an increase in the number of kids in honor roll next year, then we'd better start worrying."