On the day after Anne Arundel Superintendent Eric J. Smith, a man with a national reputation for improving minority achievement, announced his resignation, the school board formally agreed to an ambitious set of goals for African American students that even an educator of Smith's training would be hard pressed to meet.
On Sept. 7, Smith and the school board concluded a year of litigation with civil rights leaders by signing a legal agreement that, in essence, requires the school system to meet the same performance goals for black students that it has set for all students. The agreement also calls for formation of an advisory committee to track minority achievement and a series of public forums to discuss it.
"I actually feel like I'm signing a declaration of independence for our children," said Gerald Stansbury, NAACP leader in Anne Arundel, at the signing ceremony last week at the school system headquarters in Annapolis.
Smith, who is leaving to take a job at Harvard, said the ceremony was "one of those moments when you look back in your career and say, 'This has been worth the journey.' "
What makes the new goals particularly challenging is that meeting them would require the school system to dramatically narrow the achievement gap between whites and blacks. It's one thing for a school system to set a goal of 85 percent proficiency on the statewide Maryland School Assessment for all students. It's quite another to set the same goal for black students, who, because of lower family income and other factors, typically score far lower on the tests than their white classmates.
"We want the same thing any white parent wants for their child. We want the same thing," Stansbury said.
The agreement lists seven academic goals for black students, all of them already stated as goals for the entire student population in Anne Arundel. All are to be met by June 2007.
Under Smith, Anne Arundel schools have made dramatic progress with black students, particularly in the areas of participation in the SAT and AP exams and in providing challenging course work across the upper grades. Blacks' test scores have risen steadily, but whites' test scores have risen apace, so in many cases, the gap hasn't narrowed appreciably.
One goal is that 85 percent of black students attain proficiency on the MSA across the grades and subject areas. Scores have risen across the board on the statewide exam, and white students have already met that goal in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade reading and math. Black students have not. Proficiency rates for white students in those grades range from 85 to 90 percent. For blacks, they range from 68 to 75 percent.
Another goal is that 75 percent of black students take the SAT. That will be a difficult goal for the entire school system and certainly for the historically under-represented black student population. Just 54 percent of the county's 2005 seniors took the SAT, and only one school, Severna Park High, attained the goal of 75 percent participation.
Another goal is that 40 percent of black students complete at least one Advanced Placement course, signifying that they have attempted college-level work while still in high school and are taking the top tier of classes offered by their school.
Anne Arundel schools have doubled AP participation in the past few years, and black participation has risen at a faster clip. The number of AP exams taken by black students nearly tripled from 121 in 2002 to 323 in 2004, while the number taken by whites went from 2,816 to 5,113 in that span. The data provided by the school system did not indicate what share of students have taken at least one course.
There's similar evidence of progress toward another goal, that 45 percent of black students take the Algebra I course before they enter high school, an important prerequisite for advanced classes such as calculus. The school system reported 266 blacks enrolled in Algebra I in middle school in 2005 compared with 223 the previous year, an almost 20 percent increase. But here, too, the available data did not indicate what share of students had taken the course.
Some civil rights leaders wonder whether the same pace of improvement can continue under a school system without Smith, who placed minority achievement among his top goals. Smith attended the meetings that produced the agreement; the goals were built upon his own objectives for the 75,000-student system. Meeting the goals could require enormous financial resources from the county, and the agreement doesn't lay out specific penalties for failing to meet them.
"Under Smith, there was some hope this agreement would be implemented," said Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights activist and aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens (D). "Personally, I question whether it can be done without Smith."