By Lori Aratani and Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 17, 2006
A majority of middle schools in the highly regarded Montgomery County system failed to meet performance targets in the past academic year, falling short of benchmarks for special education students and others who come from poor or immigrant families, Maryland officials reported yesterday.
The trends in Montgomery and elsewhere in the state intensified concerns about stagnant test scores in many middle schools, particularly in reading. They also underscored the rising challenge that schools nationwide face in complying with the No Child Left Behind law.
In Prince George's County, for example, 13 schools have failed to meet academic standards for so many years that they must be restructured or have plans to do so. Prince George's and the City of Baltimore each have far more schools rated in need of improvement than any other Maryland system. Together, they account for more than three-quarters of the 167 elementary and middle schools on Maryland's needs-improvement list.
The 2002 federal law requires schools to show "adequate yearly progress" toward the twin goals of closing achievement gaps and getting nearly all students tested to reach grade-level proficiency in reading and mathematics. Those who fail to make "AYP" for two years or longer can face consequences including a state-ordered overhaul.
Experts who track the law say states across the country are reporting growing numbers of schools that have missed targets. Virginia and the District expect to report their No Child Left Behind school ratings in the next few weeks. Maryland's high school test scores are due out Monday.
Yesterday, the Maryland State Department of Education reported that 241 elementary and middle schools fell short of academic targets in 2005-06, based on standardized test scores for grades 3 through 8 and student attendance data. That represented an increase of more than 20 percent over the previous annual total of 196.
State officials chose to accent the positive: Four of five elementary and middle schools met standards.
"These gratifying results tell us that students and teachers from across Maryland have been paying attention to improving performance across the board," State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said in a prepared statement. She said that many elementary schools are making "dramatic progress."
However, state officials express growing concern about middle schools. "Kids get to middle school, and they're not getting everything they need," said Gary Heath, an assistant state superintendent.
In Montgomery, 21 of 38 middle schools missed the targets, according to the new state data. Thirteen Montgomery elementary schools also fell short. In the previous school year, data show, 12 of the county's elementary and middle schools fell short.
Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said that the new state ratings underscored "the level of improvement still needed" in the county's middle schools.
The 139,000-student system is perennially a high performer among large school systems nationwide, based on measures such as graduation rates, SAT scores and Advanced Placement tests. It also serves a population of highly educated, highly motivated and often wealthy families, all of which can be significant factors in student achievement.
But for all of its educational advantages, Montgomery also faces challenges typical for major school systems. It has a sizable population of students who come from low-income homes, including many from Latino immigrant families with limited English skills. Such students tend to score lower on standardized tests than others. So do disabled students who receive special education services.
In Prince George's, which has a higher population of disadvantaged students, 72 elementary and middle schools failed to meet state targets. That was down slightly from the previous year's total of 77, according to state data.
But challenges are mounting in Prince George's even though test scores have risen in recent years. More than 60 of its elementary and middle schools are rated in need of improvement. New schools chief John E. Deasy, who took over the 133,000-student system last spring, is preparing plans to intervene in dozens of chronically low-performing schools. He said yesterday that the initiative, expected to go to the school board for approval as soon as next week, would be "dramatic and intensive."
The performance of the Baltimore school system has become an issue in the gubernatorial campaign. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley, the Baltimore mayor, have sparred over the record of city schools. O'Malley says they are improving; Ehrlich says progress is too slow. Data released yesterday show that more than 80 Baltimore schools failed to meet performance targets and more than 60 are rated in need of improvement, and most have been on the list for several years.
Among Washington area elementary and middle schools, eight Anne Arundel County schools failed to meet targets, according to the state data. So did three in Howard County, five in Frederick County and three in St. Mary's County, data showed. Every school in Charles and Calvert counties met the standards.
The state also reported that five Anne Arundel schools are on its needs-improvement list for elementary and middle schools, with three from St. Mary's and one from Frederick. Montgomery has a dozen schools on the list.
Many of the trouble spots in Montgomery's ratings stem from special-education test scores. Critics dispute the school system's contention that it is addressing that issue.
But the primary concern emerging from the new data is middle school achievement.
Last spring, the system began an effort to revamp those schools after an audit found inconsistencies in the way students were taught. School system spokesman Brian Edwards said educators have expanded summer programs for struggling middle school students and added in-school and after-school programs to reach those needing extra help. A report on strategies for improving middle schools is due in the fall.