Prince George's public schools have received a double-sided report card this year.
On June 7, the Maryland State Department of Education told the school system that its test scores rose for the second straight year. On June 20, however, the state reported that more elementary and middle schools face tougher oversight and possible penalties for falling short in mathematics and reading.
Should parents be reassured or worried? Should the school system rejoice or retool?
On both counts, the answer is: It depends.
For parents, it depends in part on where they live and whether they believe their local schools are pushing children to excel.
For the school system, it depends on whether progress spread across the county, from Laurel to Accokeek, is good enough to meet rising expectations in a fast-growing, urban-suburban county where the affluence that boosts many students abuts poverty that hinders others.
School officials say they plan few, if any, changes in the overall academic policies that were set during the two-year tenure of departed schools chief Andre J. Hornsby.
Hornsby replaced textbooks, standardized the curriculum to align it with the annual Maryland School Assessment in grades 3 through 8, expanded pre-kindergarten and Saturday schooling, and pushed for more intensive monitoring of individual student achievement through use of technology. Case in point: the much-noted $1 million purchase last year of LeapPads and other high-tech gear from LeapFrog SchoolHouse for high-poverty schools. It hobbled Hornsby because of questions raised about his live-in relationship with a company saleswoman. But the LeapPads apparently helped early readers.
"We should give the school system an A for effort," said school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro). "I'm terribly biased. But we made tremendous progress. We have to make sure we continue the same focus. We're going in the right direction."
Interim schools chief Howard A. Burnett, who replaced Hornsby after his resignation May 27 amid an ethics controversy, said that the school system will comb the state test scores for warning signs.
"We should be using the data to plan for improvements," Burnett said, "recognizing where the deficiencies are and where we need targeted behavior and actions."
Asked to rate the school system's progress, Burnett said: "I haven't seen an occasion where it's fast enough. But the key is recognizing it's systemic improvement. It's throughout the grade levels. It is a sea change."
School officials say they are heartened by test results showing that the county is narrowing the gap that separates it from the state as a whole in reading and math, especially in early grades.
The data also show that something went right last year at Doswell E. Brooks Elementary in Capitol Heights.
The school had been identified for four years as needing improvement. It spent so much time on the state watch list that officials were forced to draw up a plan to restructure the school. In 2003, three groups of students spotlighted by the federal No Child Left Behind law failed to make adequate yearly progress: Hispanics, disabled students and those from high-poverty families.
But, in 2004, Doswell E. Brooks met all its testing targets. And in 2005 it met them again.
The scores tell the story.
In 2003, 76 percent of third-graders at the school failed the state reading test. By 2005, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of third-graders were reading at proficient or advanced levels. Sixty-nine percent of fifth-graders failed the math test in 2003. Fifty-six percent passed it this year.
Now Doswell E. Brooks is off the watch list.
"I'm really ecstatic," said Karen Kunkel, who was Brooks's principal in the school year that just ended. In the 2003-04 school year, she was principal at another inner-Beltway elementary school (Green Valley, since converted to an alternative middle school) that also made the state standards. In the coming school year, Kunkel will oversee schools in the southwestern sector of the county as a regional director.
Last year, Kunkel had teachers draw up "action plans" for every struggling student at Doswell E. Brooks. She raised the number of computers on campus to 200, from 40, and met weekly with a state education department advisor. Children in grades 2 through 6 were expected to carry books at all times at school to ensure they could read at a moment's notice.
A curriculum called "Academy of Reading" was launched, with laptops to help youngsters learn phonics and other critical early reading skills. Teachers assessed student vocabulary skills every week. Math skills, such as working with fractions, were promoted through posters plastered everywhere. And parents came to monthly pizza and spaghetti feeds for guidance on reading and math homework.
"It's not hard to replicate," Kunkel said. "You have to have a good plan in place and constantly assess."
Of 53 elementary and middle schools in the county identified in the past year as needing improvement, only Doswell E. Brooks dropped from the watch list. (Two years in a row of so-called adequate progress are required.) Appeals are pending for a handful of other schools that fell just short based on preliminary data. One or two more might drop off the list as a result; officials cite Overlook Elementary in Temple Hills as an example.
Six other schools joined the watch list after missing state benchmarks two years in a row: Apple Grove Elementary in Fort Washington, John Carroll Elementary in Landover, High Bridge Elementary in Bowie, Forest Heights Elementary in Oxon Hill, Samuel P. Massie Elementary in Forestville and Gwynn Park Middle in Brandywine.
But a closer look at their performance shows that several of these schools appear to be improving at a steady pace, even if the state won't label their progress as adequate because too many students are still not demonstrating proficiency.
* At Apple Grove, third-grade reading scores went from 35 percent at or above proficiency in 2003 to 53 percent this year. More than three in five fifth-graders there failed the math test in 2003, but well over half passed it this year. Only special education test scores tripped this school.
* At Forest Heights, another school where special education scores were the only obstacle to meeting standards, math scores rose at every level and reading scores did likewise except in sixth grade.
* At High Bridge, a third school with low special education scores, only sixth-grade reading scores and fifth-grade math scores dipped. Every other level rose modestly.
* At John Carroll, reading scores were uneven, but math scores rose across the board.
* At Samuel P. Massie, reading and math scores rose in every grade.
* At Gwynn Park, special education scores were a problem (part of a pattern countywide), but scores for most other groups of students met state standards.
Similar stories can be found among other schools on the watch list. In all, 11 of them met state standards and therefore became eligible to drop off the list next year, if they can replicate the feat in the coming school year. By contrast, only five schools were eligible this year to leave the list.
Still, red flags for the system pop up on the watch list in numerous places.
Nine county elementary and middle schools are now forced to restructure after remaining several years on the watch list. Among the other 23 school systems in the state, only Baltimore has elementary or middle schools at that stage -- 46 in all.
Thirty-nine Prince George's elementary and middle schools now face stricter oversight and potential sanctions, out of 95 statewide.
In addition, the county's percentage of students scoring at the highest level on the state tests -- "advanced" -- lags behind results from neighboring counties.
Data show that Prince George's has about the same percentage of students at the middle level -- "proficient," or passing -- as the entire state, at most grade levels in reading and math.
But it has only about half as many students, on average, as the state at the advanced level; likewise, the state has significantly fewer students on average as Prince George's at the lowest level -- "basic," or failing.
Nonetheless, the county school system viewed the report card as good news. Its June 8 news release, one day after test scores were made public, was headlined: "State Test Scores Continue to Rise."
Here's how it viewed the subtraction of one school from the state watch list on June 20 (while six were being added): "More Progress Announced for Prince George's County Public Schools."