While Carroll County students posted the state's second-highest average percentage of students passing last spring's High School Assessment for English II, school officials greeted the news with cautious optimism.
Nearly three-fourths of the county's test-takers passed the exam, but officials said they must refine teaching strategies to help even more students pass a series of such tests so they can graduate.
"No matter how the scores look, you always want them to be better," Gregory Eckles, the county's director of high schools, said of the results state education officials released last week. "We have to continue looking at what we're doing and not doing to help our students be successful."
The State Board of Education voted to require students starting with the Class of 2009 - this year's ninth-graders - to pass HSA exams in English, biology, algebra and government to graduate from high school. As an alternative, students may graduate if they have earned a combined passing score for all four tests.
Most students will take these subjects in ninth or 10th grade. Students who fail the end-of-course tests will be given up to three more times each year to retake them.
With 71.4 percent of its students passing the English exam, Carroll's results were second only to Howard County, where 76.6 percent passed it.
Both counties far surpassed the statewide average of 57.4 percent of students passing.
Results from the three other exams were released in August.
Eckles said his initial reaction to last week's English HSA results was mixed.
"I'm pleased with the overall results," he said. "But I'm concerned about certain groups," such as special education students, as well as schools that didn't fare as well as others.
In addition, the results revealed gaps between white and Asian students' performance and African-American and Hispanic students.
For instance, while nearly 89 percent of the county's Asian students and nearly 73 percent of white students passed the English exam, only 40 percent of African-American and 50 percent of Hispanic students passed.
Meanwhile, only 23.4 percent of special education students passed it.
"Special education is a prime example of where we have to look at how we can improve our instruction to get a much higher percentage of those students to pass," Eckles said.
He said school officials would be looking at successful schools within the system and beyond its borders for inspiration.
"I think the results allow us to say which practices being used in some schools can be used in other schools," he said.
The county's highest-performing and lowest-performing schools will serve as starting points as school officials begin to analyze the data and decide their next steps.
At Winters Mill High in Westminster, nearly 83 percent of students passed the English exam, while at Francis Scott Key High in Union Bridge, 64.5 percent passed.
But a particular point of interest at Winters Mill, Eckles said, is the school's performance among students who receive free and reduced-priced meals, used as an indicator of poverty.
Among those students at Winters Mill, nearly 91 percent passed. At Francis Scott Key, 40 percent of them passed.
The two schools have the county's highest concentrations of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, Eckles said.
"You have to take a look at why students aren't achieving as they should be," he said. "We still have to look at each individual group and determine what instructional strategies will help these students pass the test."
The English results were a final piece of information being used by state educators to determine which schools and school systems had made "adequate progress" toward achievement goals prescribed in the federal No Child Left Behind law.
All of Carroll's schools have made sufficient progress to stay off state watch lists, but school officials are awaiting results from "coding" corrections among its special education population that were recently submitted to state officials.
Gregory Bricca, the school system's research and accountability director, said that while he is not expecting the changes to alter the system's standing, he won't know for sure until the state recalculates the results.
"My initial thought is it won't change, but the calculation for [adequate yearly progress] is so complex, that I'm not real confident," he said.
Bricca echoed Eckles' assessment of Carroll's most recent results and the work that lies ahead.
"This is the first year of results for [the English test], so we can't identify trends yet," he said. "But the sense is that the scores are fairly good. It reinforces what we've seen in other [state assessments], that we're doing a good job of getting students where they need to be."
This table shows the percentage of 10th-graders who scored at proficient or advanced levels in Maryland's English II High School Assessment last spring.
School Prof. Adv. Total
Maryland totals 34.7 22.7 57.4
Carroll County totals 40.0 31.4 71.4
Century 42.3 28.2 70.5
Francis Scott Key 37.5 27.0 64.5
Liberty 40.5 32.7 73.2
North Carroll 42.7 33.3 76.0
South Carroll 41.7 30.9 72.6
Westminster 34.0 35.0 69.0
Winters Mill 46.6 36.1 82.7