The Anne Arundel school board hired Superintendent Eric J. Smith in summer 2002 to raise the bar and close the gap: to elevate performance for all students, and also to improve the academic standing of minorities, particularly blacks, relative to whites.
Many superintendents have found success in one or the other of those measures; Smith, based on his performance in Charlotte, N.C., and elsewhere, had proved himself one of a few innovators who could do both.
Smith announced last week that he will resign to take a job at Harvard University. Now, on the eve of his Nov. 23 departure, Smith's friends and foes in the county are comparing notes on how the numbers stack up for this by-the-numbers superintendent. Some see smoke and mirrors. To others, the numbers speak for themselves.
"Parents saw their kids learning," said Debbie Ritchie, the countywide PTA president and one of Smith's supporters.
Here's a survey of the numbers under Eric J. Smith:
Maryland School Assessments
Scores have risen dramatically in Anne Arundel on the all-important statewide test, introduced in Smith's first year as superintendent. True, scores have risen around Maryland in the first years of MSA testing, as is typical with a new test. But Anne Arundel's have risen faster than most.
The percentage of students attaining proficiency in third-grade reading on the MSA went from 64 percent in 2003, the first year of testing, to 85 percent this year. Math proficiency climbed from 73 percent to 86 percent in those years.
Anne Arundel's standing relative to the rest of the state has improved modestly. The county's proficiency rate in third-grade reading, for example, exceeded the statewide average by six points in 2003; by 2005, Anne Arundel surpassed the Maryland average in third-grade reading by nine points.
SAT and AP
Anne Arundel students have improved by eight points -- all on the verbal test -- on the SAT college-admissions test since 2002, the year of Smith's arrival. The countywide average went from 515 to 523 in verbal ability from 2002 to 2005, while the average math score held steady at 533.
Anne Arundel consistently scores about 30 points higher than the state and nation on the SAT, and that relationship hasn't changed; SAT scores have risen steadily across the country in the past decade.
Advanced Placement, a program of courses and exams that challenge high school students with college-level work, is a cornerstone of Smith's academic program in Anne Arundel.
Participation in AP exams has more than doubled since 2001. The total number of exams given in the county rose from 2,475 in the 2000-01 academic year to 5,932 in 2003-04, the most recent year for which data are available. The county now averages more than one AP test per graduating senior, a benchmark few school systems can match.
Some of the most dramatic results have come at Southern High School in Harwood: Between 2003 and 2004, the number of AP tests given rose from 148 to 491, and the number of subjects tested rose from 12 to 23. Severna Park and Broadneck high schools, which already had strong AP programs, have even stronger ones now.
There has been an AP backlash, particularly among teachers, some of whom contend the course work has been watered down. The overall AP pass rate has declined in the past few years, from 73 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2004. But the total number of passed AP tests still more than doubled, from about 1,800 in 2001 to about 3,850 in 2004.
High School Assessments
Anne Arundel schools have made headway under Smith on the state High School Assessments, a battery of tests that students will be required to pass in order to get diplomas by 2009.
The pass rate in biology has seesawed from 61 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2005, while the algebra pass rate has climbed from 56 percent to 69 percent. In the third test, government, the pass rate has gone from 55 percent to 67 percent.
The county has far exceeded the results of Maryland students overall on the high school exams: The state as a whole has made scant progress in either algebra or biology since 2002, the pass rates rising two and three points, respectively.
Anne Arundel has drawn criticism from teachers for its practice of excluding failing students from the HSA, a practice the teachers union might have publicized if Smith had not announced his resignation earlier this month.
The HSA is taken by students as they complete the corresponding high school course. Anne Arundel gives the tests only to those students who have passed in the first semester, said Adam Milam, who directs testing in the county.
Teachers union officials investigated the practice and found it was allowed under state testing rules. But teachers point to competing counties that do not exclude failing students, including Howard and Montgomery, as evidence that Anne Arundel officials were exploiting a loophole to yield a higher score.
Milam counters that, in the Anne Arundel school system's view, requiring a failing student to take the exam would be unfair.
Stanford Achievement Test
The Stanford test, which yields percentile scores that compare a school or district to the nation as a whole, offers an index of a school system's overall standing. Anne Arundel now offers the Stanford test only in the second grade; it has been overshadowed by the MSA.
Anne Arundel's standing on the test looks to have risen slightly under Smith's tenure, based on the sketchy data available from the system.
In 2002, when students took the California Test of Basic Skills (a test akin to Stanford), the county scored in the 57th percentile in second-grade reading and in the 55th percentile in second-grade math. In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, second-graders taking the Standord test scored in the 60th percentile in both reading and math.
Narrowing the Gap
Smith has largely succeeded at raising scores for blacks and, just as important, raising participation by black students in challenging courses and college-entrance testing. But white scores are rising, too. So in many cases, the gap remains.
Consider the Maryland School Assessment, the exam by which Anne Arundel's progress will be judged under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The share of black third-graders judged proficient in reading has risen from 45 percent in 2003 to 69 percent in 2005. But the gap between white and black performance has narrowed by just four points, because white scores are rising nearly as fast. The proficiency rate among whites remains 20 points higher.
The gap has closed more quickly in third-grade math: black proficiency rose from 54 percent in 2003 to 72 percent in 2005, and the span between black and white scores closed from 25 points to 17 points in that time.
Anne Arundel's graduation rate is about eight percentage points higher for whites than for blacks, and that gap has held steady for all of Smith's years as superintendent. The graduation rate for blacks went from 74 percent in 2002 to 76 percent in 2005; for whites, from 83 percent to 84 percent.