Black leaders and parents spoke out last month at a Montgomery County school board meeting with voices of indignation. An analysis of scores from last fall's Maryland Functional Reading Test had just been made public, and the results were not pleasing to blacks.
Of the 824 black seventh-graders who took the test, 26 percent, more than 200, had failed.
John W. Diggs, president of the county's Alpha Phi Alpha professional fraternity, drew the lines for a fight, openly threatening board members with legal action. Hanley J. Norment, an officer of the local NAACP, delivered his own declaration of malaise: "It is no longer enough to offer educational opportunities. You must assure equal educational outcomes."
Just as they lag behind economically, many Montgomery County blacks find themselves outdistanced by whites in educational achievement. In the eyes of black leaders, the 26 percent failure rate for black seventh-graders appears even worse when compared to the success of white students and other minorities in the same grade: 92 percent of the 6,007 white students passed, as did 94 percent of the county's 343 Asian seventh-graders, and 87 percent of 237 Hispanos.
A similar record of low achievement in reading comprehension emerged in elementary schools with a high percentage of black pupils when the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was administered last spring.
School officials in the superintendent's office, along with administrators in elementary and junior high schools in the county, believe race is not a cause of poor test scores. And when the figures are broken down school by school, a different picture emerges.
This is a picture of the county itself, of its poor, of its new immigrants, of its population on the move and of its established affluence. It is a picture painted both with sweeping strokes and with small dashes of pigment. Like a cubist painting, it invites many interpretations.
There is evidence to support those who would make a racial issue of the test results. Evidence exists equally however, to indicate that other forces are at work.
Four of the six junior high schools where seventh-graders showed the poorest performance on the functional reading test are among the 10 junior highs with the highest concentrations of black students. Sligo Junior High, which ranked 25th out of 30 on the test, is 19.9 percent black. Takoma Park Junior High, ranked 27th, is 43 percent black, the highest percentage in the county.
But many of the junior highs with large black populations achieved the countywide average of 90 percent passing. At Key -- 23.6 percent black -- and Argyle -- 23.8 percent black -- the passing rate was 90.9 percent. One of the top 10 scoring schools, Banneker Junior High, is also among the 10 schools with the largest black concentrations. Banneker is 15.9 percent black.
The 10 schools that scored best are predominantly white, with eight of them more than 90 percent white and seven of those more than 95 percent white. But five of the 10 schools with the lowest scores are also more than 90 percent white. Students at Baker -- 95 percent white -- scored 23rd on the functional reading test. At Farquhar -- 92 percent white -- 14 percent of the seventh-graders failed.
Patterns of success and failure are no less confusing among the county's 124 elementary schools where third-graders took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills last spring.
Third-graders at 10 elementary schools all placed below the state norm and at or below the national norm in reading comprehension. At eight of these schools, the concentration of blacks is more than 10 percent with black student populations of 20 percent or more at four, of 31.5 percent at one and of 51 percent at another (Brookview).
But North Chevy Chase, with a 15.6 percent black student population, placed among the top nine high scoring schools. Two of the schools in the bottom 10, Rosemont and Lone Oak, are both less than 10 percent black.
Again, the top nine schools that ranked in the 84th percentile or higher -- far above the national norm of 52 -- are predominantly white. Seven of these have black student populations of 5 percent or less. The top ranking school, Farmland -- in the 95th percentile with what schools accountability officer James Meyerberg called "an incredibly amazing high score" -- is 99 percent white.
The numbers don't tell the whole story. But what emerges from them and from conversations with school administrators is a picture of the county's socio-economic structure, in which most black families traditionally have occupied a position below that of other residents and often near the bottom.
Black leaders, still bitter that a course designed to instruct county teachers in better race relations was dropped as a requirement, argue that the county must ensure that minority students do as well on reading tests as whites.
But black families are not alone. On the county map, nine of the 10 elementary schools where third-graders performed least well line up in a neat corridor, from Gaithersburg in the north following Frederick Avenue, Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard southeasterly to Takoma Park. In this corridor live many of the county's working class, middle- and low-income families, black and white. Here much of the county's subsidized housing is located. Here many students come from broken homes. Here, too, live many of Montgomery's foreign-born residents, some of them refugees from Southeast Asia, who have recently joined the school community.
Five of the schools in this corridor are among the 28 elementary schools in the county receiving funds for disadvantaged and underachieving students through the federal Title I program. Three more are among the eight assisted countywide by the Maryland Compensatory Education program. In many of them, a large portion of the student body is on the school lunch program. Several have large concentrations of students learning English as a second language.
The nine elementary schools that scored highest in the county are a few miles to the southwest. With few exceptions they are located within a relatively small radius encompassing Bethesda and Chevy Chase, traditionally the most affluent area in the county.
Officials said they could give no single explanation for the vast differences in reading achievement from one area of the county to another, or even from one school to the next. There is no way, they said, to account for the students who come to school with an underdeveloped vocabulary, with an inability to decipher words or with a general lack of motivation to learn.
School administrators, some of them unwilling to speak openly about the community in which they work, gave several reasons that may play roles of varying importance at any school.
One reason mentioned often is the mobility of the county school population. The turnover rate at some schools approaches or exceeds 50 percent. Administrators said students coming into the county have not only been hindered by moving from one school system to another, but by sometimes erratic teaching policies.
"If you look at our kids," said Thomas Poore, principal of Brookview Elementary School in Silver Spring, "you'll find that a number of them have been in seven or eight different schools by the time they're in fifth grade."
At Glen Haven Elementary School in Silver Spring, the turnover rate is 47.9 percent. School principal Marlene Ross said it is caused by the high turnover of military personnel attached to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who live in the community during their two- or three-year tours of duty and then leave.
In many schools, the turnover rate is 20 percent or more. Administrators say that every time a student is forced to adjust to new surroundings, new teachers and new friends, he is wasting valuable time and energy he might have spent learning reading skills.
"If a child doesn't identify with a particular community, with a particular group, with a work group or with a church group," said Keith Dunlevy, principal of Highland Elementary School, also in Silver Spring, "I think that has something to do with his feelings of being attached. And when a child is struggling with identity problems, that affects his reading."
Studies show that students who stay in the county school systems longest do better, but some students established in the community still perform below grade level, sometimes three or four grades below their level. Administrators say many of these enter schools with limited vocabularies and generally lower cognivitive abilities -- a result, they believe, of coming from homes where they lacked diversified experiences outside the confines of their immediate community and did not talk much with their parents.
"When you get large numbers of kids that come from impoverished backgrounds, it's awfully hard to break this cycle of poor speech, poor syntax and poor grammatical usage," said Poore. "Unfortunately, the linkage between the educational level of parents and that of the kids is very, very high."
"I find the experience background of some of the students leaves something to be desired," said Walter White, principal of Rocking Horse Road Elementary in Rockville. "In terms of travel experience, in terms of cultural experience, they just aren't able to relate what is happening in a textbook to something that happens in real life."
Many school officials believe a family background lacking communication between parents and children keeps children's vocabulary low.
"There's not a lot of talking going on," said Dunlevy of Highland Elementary, "talking that would be similar to what is read in reading books. A lot of conversation goes on in one word sentences, whereas you're reading books that are much more complicated."
"Some children haven't even developed to the point where they can give you a complete sentence," said Hazel Bennett, principal at Lone Oak in Rockville. "They just give you a phrase, or a nod."
"There's no interraction where kids are verbally expressing themselves," said Raphaela Best, reading specialist at Rosemont Elementary School in Gaithersburg. "Many of these kids come from very poor families where both parents work. The parents don't have that king of time. And you know that if a kid is watching 'Charlie's Angels,' he's not getting the kind of vocabulary he would if he were watching Shakespeare on Channel 26."
"The primary thing," said Kenneth J. Egloff, principal of Broad Acres in Silver Spring, "is that many of them don't have the opportunities at an early age to verbalize or develop their vocabulary. Their parents are holding jobs. They have problems just making a living and can't devote much time to their children."
Often the vocabulary they do develop does not help them very much in school.
"In all schools standard English is spoken and the materials are in standard English," said Mary E. Lacy, principal at Maryval Elementary in Rockville.
"The language pattern they use may be very efficient and may work very well at home," said Poore, "but it's certainly not what you would call standard English in most cases."
Many of the schools where reading scores are lowest are located near subsidized and multifamily housing. Children who do poorly often come from homes where both parents are working, from single-parent homes disrupted by divorce or separation, or from homes on welfare.
At Lone Oak, for instance, 75 percent of the students last year came from broken homes. At Brookview, 89 of the school's 242 students come from single-parent families.
"Right now we have about 25 percent of our kids in homes with single parents," said Dunlevy. "In addition we have a large number where another parent has come into the picture. I would think that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent are in reconstituted families or single-parent situations."
The emotional stress of living in a home that is breaking up or already has broken up is regarded as another reason for poor reading achievement.
In many schools, one reason for a poor showing on standardized tests is the large number of non-English speaking families moving into the community, bringing children who have yet to learn their first words of English.
At Rosemont Elementary, 10 percent of the 348 students are foreign-born, primarily from Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and India, said Best.
"The first day of school we had a map up here representing all the different countries," said Mindy Golden, the reading specialist at Weller Road. "There were 15 countries represented."
Approximately 18 percent of Weller Road's students are classified as having a native language other than English.