The classroom "pods" are in place at Elkridge's new Deep Run Elementary School and at Ellicott City's new Waverly Elementary, their movable walls settled in for the moment.
Howard County's two newest schools are bracing for about 600 students, part of the latest wave of growth in enrollment that is expected to be a constant through the 1990s.
An anticipated 29,500 to 30,000 students will stream into 50 Howard County public schools when the fall term begins Tuesday morning. When school ended in June, there were 28,900.
On hand to greet them will be 180 new teachers and an administration that has its work cut out for it. For this is the year the county school system must devise new methods to test students and hold itself accountable to the state for student achievement.
The Maryland Board of Education's plan to replace current standardized tests and establish a unique state-accreditation system for schools means that each county must come up with a plan this year.
"I'm sure that we don't fully realize how much it's going to fully occupy our time," said county School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "We'll be giving a lot of attention to it."
For starters, the state has directed school systems to find ways to increase secondary school attendance, an issue being studied by principals throughout the county, Hickey said.
Howard's secondary school attendance is among the highest in the state, with nearly 90 percent of students showing up for classes, Hickey said.
But the state has set a new standard calling for at least 94 percent, a level "that, for a lot of different reasons, is very difficult for high schools to meet, even in this county," he said.
Howard educators also are working to align the county curriculum to "the kinds of things that are going to be tested" under the new state system of accountability, the county superintendent said.
"There are really major testing implications," Hickey said. "We're moving away from paper and pencil tests to more performance-oriented tests. It will change the way we professional educators and people in the community conceive of testing."
As an example, he said, "Now you take standardized tests in math that give you a bunch of problems based on stories . . . . The state is looking at giving you a comprehensive problem and asking to you to work with other kids to resolve it.
"So that old idea of 'Don't look at the next kid's paper' really goes against that in some respects. This will say, 'Work cooperatively as a team to find a solution to this problem.' "
While state tests will be taken in the third, fifth, eighth and 11th grades, the county will be looking for new ways to assess student progress in other grades, Hickey said.
Two more facilities are expected to open a year from now, an elementary and a middle school, and construction is "pretty much on track," Hickey said. But at the same time, he said, "We've been putting off developing our own comprehensive facilities plan, which we need to do."
Such a plan would map out the school system's needs for the next decade, including new buildings and sites, Hickey said.
Demand for classroom time to take additional courses in high school continues to remain high in Howard as toughened state graduation requirements have squeezed electives out of many high school students' schedules.
The county's Council of PTAs wants high school students to be able to take seven courses and is making adoption of such an option its highest priority. However, Hickey said the schools just don't have room for additional classes. "I just don't see it in the cards for the next year or next couple of years," he said.
"With 80 percent of our students going on to higher education, it's a demand that has to be met," said Rosemary Mortimer, president of the PTA council. "Students are missing a wealth of information," including courses in health and fine arts, she said.
And at the same time, students are having difficulty fitting courses that some colleges require for admission -- such as foreign languages -- into their schedules.
An expanded load of courses "doesn't necessarily mean having seven periods in the day," Mortimer said. "Alternatives suggested include having Saturday or night school or possibly seven classes over a 10-day period . . . with courses that might not meet every day."
School board members say they want to address the issue of additional coursework, which has been raised since 1987. But "I don't believe the prospects are good . . . in light of the three-year contract we have with the teachers' association," board president Karen Campbell said. "There is no provision in it for that extended day."
However, James Swab, head of the county teachers' union, said the issue is "not in conflict with the contract at all. . . . . It's a monetary consideration by the board because it will need to hire more teachers have have some more space."