Blacks in suburbs failing Md. exams

Poor results at some high schools called surprising

September 06, 2007|By Gina Davis and Liz Bowie | Gina Davis and Liz Bowie,Sun Reporters

When Maryland's top school officer proposed that the state back away from its tough high school testing program last week, one reason might have been the troubling performance of some suburban schools.

An alarming pattern of failure is surfacing: Minority students, especially African-Americans, are struggling to pass the exams in the suburban classrooms their families had hoped would provide a better education.

"It is a wake-up call to African-Americans in Maryland," said Dunbar Brooks, president of the state school board and former president of the Baltimore County school board. "For many African-Americans, the mere fact that your child attends a suburban school district does not make academic achievement automatic."

Baltimore City and its suburbs released school-by-school results last week for the Class of 2009 - the first group that must pass the statewide High School Assessments in algebra, English, biology and government to get a diploma.

What they show is that in Baltimore County alone, nearly a third of the system's roughly two dozen high schools had pass rates of 60 percent or less. Also, high schools with predominantly African-American populations, such as Randallstown and Woodlawn, had passing rates mostly below 50 percent.

The results were similar, if not so pronounced, in Anne Arundel County, where some of the most urbanized schools - North County, Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Meade - performed well below the rest of the system.

Educators point to the gap in achievement between African-Americans and whites as one reason for the slump among inner suburban schools - although not the only one.

Until now, the achievement gap in Baltimore County has been masked by county averages. Some of Maryland's highest-performing schools are in the county's largely white and well-to-do northern corridor, including Towson, Dulaney, Carver and Hereford high schools. Those schools, along with the Eastern and Western technical magnets, boost the county averages.

In Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, disparities between the highest- and lowest- performing schools were not so apparent. Most high schools there had passing rates of 80 percent or more.

African-Americans have long been migrating from Baltimore City to county neighborhoods. The number of African-Americans enrolled in county public schools has increased by 21 percent since 2000, and minorities account for almost 50 percent of the school population.

To be sure, Baltimore City's neighborhood high schools reported bleak results this year, with some pass rates lower than 20 percent. On the other hand, the city's perennial high performers, the citywide academic magnets - Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High, the School for the Arts and City College - had pass rates similar to top suburban schools.

A handful of other academic and technical high schools in the city - such as Dunbar High, Merganthaler Voc-Tech and several new specialty high schools - performed as well as or better than some predominantly African-American suburban high schools.

Critics and activists in Baltimore County see the results in some schools, such as ultramodern New Town High in Owings Mills, as grossly out-of-step with area demographics not related to race.

More than 90.5 percent of area residents have earned a high school diploma and 42.8 percent have at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and median household income is $53,000.

"It's inexcusable," said Ella White Campbell, a retired city educator and executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council. "You can't say it's income that's the problem. And education levels are very high. ... The disconnect is in the fact that you have an educated community that has not realized kids are not getting the basics."

New Town High, which opened in 2003, has about 1,000 students, 92 percent of whom are African-American.

Walking the hallways yesterday at New Town High, Principal Barbara Cheswick said she knows the school's high school assessment results don't paint a pretty picture. But her staff is working on the problem.

"It's about establishing expectations and communicating those to parents, teachers and students," said Cheswick, in her second year at the helm of the four-year-old school. "As a principal, I have high expectations of students, regardless of their background."

Alexandria Foy, a 16-year-old junior from Owings Mills, said she passed all but the English exam, missing by only two points. To help her pass it the next time around, the school has enrolled her in a "coach class."

Junior Evan Watson, 15, said students should take more responsibility. He said teachers provided plenty of opportunities to prepare with practice exams, but too many students didn't take them seriously.

"If you poll this school, 98 percent would say they are going to college," he said. "But you have to get out of high school first, and a lot of them aren't doing what they need to do."

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