School systems in Prince George's, Charles and St. Mary's counties have been placed on a watch list that puts them at risk for sanctions -- including eventual state intervention -- if student scores on reading and math tests do not improve in the next few years, Maryland officials announced yesterday.
Of the state's 24 school systems, five others also were added to the watch list and labeled "in need of improvement." Those districts are in Allegany, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent and Somerset counties, all outside the Washington area.
The Baltimore city school system remains on the list, with a more severe designation of needing "corrective action" after failing for several years to meet state testing benchmarks established under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The State Department of Education compiled the list based on standardized tests, known as the Maryland School Assessments, that students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10 took last spring. Under No Child Left Behind, public schools and systems are judged in particular by how students in eight "subgroups" perform. Those subgroups are defined by race, family income, disability and proficiency in English.
If any subgroup fails to meet state targets, the school or district fails as well. If a district fails two years in a row, it is put on the watch list.
Prince George's, the state's second-largest district with about 140,000 students, fell short this year in the performance of its special education students on both the reading and math exams. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty, also failed to meet benchmarks in math.
Overall, the percentage of Prince George's students passing increased this year compared with last.
"We are a work in progress," county schools chief Andre J. Hornsby said in a statement yesterday. "As a district, it took some time to get in this position, and it will take a number of years and steady improvement to meet all [No Child Left Behind] goals. I am confident we will continue to see measurable gains in student achievement."
Special education students in several counties did not show enough improvement on the exams. Charles County was placed on the watch list because special education students scored below state targets on the reading and math tests.
Low reading test scores among special education students put St. Mary's on the list, officials said.
The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet tomorrow with local school officials to discuss ways the eight districts can raise test scores of their lowest-performing students. If scores meet standards for two consecutive years, a district will be removed from the watch list. But if the results do not improve in that time, a district can face restructuring or state takeover.
Parents also have the right under No Child Left Behind to transfer their children from chronically failing schools.
In St. Mary's, schools officials said they knew they had a problem last year, when reading scores for special education students were low. So officials introduced a new reading program, sent "technical assistance teams" to struggling schools and encouraged teachers to talk about what worked and what didn't.
As a result, the percentage of disabled students who passed the reading test this year inched up nearly 3 percentage points to almost 35 percent. But it wasn't enough to meet state standards.
"We want to acknowledge that teachers have worked hard, students have worked hard and clearly made improvements. That's important to us," Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson said. "But it fell short of what the state is requiring."
Several Maryland districts saw significant improvements. Last year, no state school system met the targets on the exams. This year, 15 did -- including Montgomery County, which made all the targets after missing them last year in reading for special education students and those who speak limited English.
Staff writers Susan Kinzie and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.