Black parents and officials of local black organizations rose up in anger at this week's Montgomery County school board meeting, assailing board members for the low marks black children scored in last October's Maryland Functional Reading Test.
Individual parents delivered sometimes halting, emotional appeals for increased board efforts to improve the reading abilities of black students. Black community leaders did not attempt to conceal their anger, and at one point openly threatened the board with legal action if it does not initiate remedial steps.
"When we send our children to the Montgomery County schools," said one parent, "we expect them to perform with much higher scores."
Their wrath was prompted by a recent analysis of results from reading tests administered to seventh graders last fall. The tests were designed to show how well students had mastered basic reading skills deemed necessary in the day-to-day world. The analysis of scores revealed that despite some improvement since the year before, black children still lag far behind whites and ethnic minority groups.
Countywide, 90 percent of the students passed the tests, a proportion that was unchanged from the year before. Only 74 percent of the black students passed, however, compared with 92 percent of whites, 94 percent of Asian students and 87 percent of Hispanos.
The percentage of white students who passed was the same as a year earlier. The number of blacks who passed increased by 3 percent, and 6 percent more Hispanos scored passing grades.
Black leaders saw the gain as too modest.
John W. Diggs, president of the Montgomery chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a professional fraternity, told the board the results called for "immediate action."
"We are considering legal action that would force you to take the necessary steps to relieve this problem," he said. "We don't want to make this a confrontation. We want to work with you and we ask that you give us the opportunity to work with you. If you do not, however," added Diggs, a health science administrator at the National Institutes of Health, "we will take the legal steps to force you."
In an interview later, Diggs said the board "has taken no specific steps in the last three years, with the exception of H.R. 18 (a program to teach instructors better race relations) to remedy the problem. And H.R. 18 was dropped (made voluntary)."
Hanley J. Norment, director of the civil-rights office of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and an officer of Montgomery County's NAACP, told the board, "Reading is a right."
"It is no longer enough to offer educational opportunities," Norment said. "You must assure equal educational outcomes."
Board members, obviously disquieted, conceded that increased efforts to improve reading are needed.
"This is a real crisis, one that we have to give real priority to immediately," said board member Blair G. Ewing.
"Instead of improving this by 2 or 3 percentage points a year," said School Superintendent Edward Andrews, "we've really got to mount a major kind of mobilization."
"I think there's much more that we can be doing," said board vice president Carol F. Wallace.
The debate over poor reading abilities and school officials' efforts to improve them is expected to heat up further when the board considers a staff evaluation of the H.R. 18 program. It reports that the program has fallen short of some expectations. Black leaders, who want the course to be mandatory again, are expected to argue that it has not been given time enough to work.
"We're reviving the adversary relationship that existed a year ago," said Norment in an interview later. "I hope that isn't happening. We're worried that the board is apathetic, committed to a position of benign neglect."