The dropout rate among black male students in St. Mary's County has climbed as classroom performance for African Americans has lagged behind that of whites at all grade levels, according to a new report.

African American boys are dropping out of St. Mary's schools at a rate that is now nearly twice that of white boys, while the state dropout rate for black teenagers has been steadily decreasing since 1996, the report said. Commissioned by Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson and presented to the school board last week, the report includes several recommendations aimed at improving African American student performance, including hiring more minority teachers and administrators.

"There are some things we can do and have to do to eliminate the gap," Richardson said. About 2,800 of the nearly 15,000 students in St. Mary's County schools are African Americans.

In 1998, the dropout rate among African American high school-age boys in St. Mary's was 7.75 percent, up from 5.32 percent the previous year. For white male students, the 1998 rate was 4.29 percent.

Richardson appointed a Student Achievement Task Force last summer to study the academic performance of African Americans after the Maryland Department of Education released a report that showed a statewide academic disparity. gap in test sc

Among all third-graders taking the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests last year, 19.5 percent of African American boys earned a satisfactory score in the reading section, compared with 48.5 percent of white boys. The MSPAP is a battery of tests given each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders across the state.

In the third-grade language usage section, 38.5 percent of African American girls posted satisfactory scores, compared with 66.4 of white girls.

The scores for St. Mary's County schools mirror the statewide disparities.

In reading, 31.5 percent of African American boys earned a satisfactory score in St. Mary's, while 46.2 percent of white boys posted such a score. In the language usage section, 40 percent of African American girls and 60 percent of white girls performed at a satisfactory level.

The county report also found that more African American students than white students have been suspended from school since 1996, while the African American male attendance rate has fallen steadily since 1996.

The gap in test scores and academic performance between white and nonwhite students has prompted many school districts, including those in Southern Maryland and around the Washington metropolitan area, to search for ways to reverse the trend.

"I think the gaps that are being seen in the scores speak for themselves," said the Rev. Raymond Moore, pastor of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in St. Inigoes and a member of the task force. "Somehow, we're missing something."

In its report, the Student Achievement Task Force urged the St. Mary's school officials to recruit minorities for teaching positions, especially local African American students who pursue education degrees. About 7 percent of the 900 teachers who taught in 1998-1999 were African American.

William May, director of human resources for the school system, said he already has stepped up efforts to recruit minorities, but that the competition for them is rigorous. He said he recruits at historically black colleges throughout the area, extends early offers to qualified minorities and, for the first time this year, offered relocation stipends to all newly hired teachers.

"We have pointed out how important it is for students of all ethnic groups to have positive role models and to see minorities in teaching positions," May said.

The task force also called for a school survey of students, teachers, parents and other community members.

A survey earlier this year was given to minority students, angering some parents who said their children were being singled out unfairly. Richardson said that any new survey will include nonminorities.

Task Force Recommendations

The Student Achievement Task Force delivered a long list of recommendations to the St. Mary's County Board of Education. The committee's ideas included:

* Provide funding for additional resources for students with low test scores, poor attendance and high suspension rates. These resources could include mentors, after-school programs and additional teachers to reduce class sizes.

* Survey students, teachers, parents and the community about school climate.

* Recruit minorities for teaching and administrative positions.

* Recruit local African American students to teach in the district.

* Train administrators and teachers in diversity and multiculturalism.

* Increase parental involvement in the schools, especially among African American parents.

* Establish an Academic Support Services Office to implement the recommendations and regularly collect and analyze data on race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status.

SOURCE: St. Mary's County Public Schools Student Achievement Task Force

CAPTION: PERFORMANCE GAPS (This chart was not available)