Seven of 12 Anne Arundel high schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law, state officials announced last week.
Six of the seven schools missed performance targets involving reading, math and graduation rates for the 2004-2005 school year solely because of low scores by special education students. All of those schools probably will appeal, and most, if not all, of the appeals will prevail, according to school officials.
"We're talking about anywhere from one to, at most, six of those students" whose scores held each school back from making adequate progress under the federal mandate, said Adam Milam, coordinator of research for Anne Arundel schools. "Bottom line, our plan is to appeal every last one of them."
What may prove a bigger problem, in the long term, is that only 61 percent of students in the county passed the new High School Assessment in reading and writing, part of a battery of tests this year's freshmen will have to pass in order to graduate.
The data released Nov. 10 show the county and the rest of Maryland acclimating to a difficult new test -- and chafing under the constraints of No Child Left Behind, which requires schools to meet performance goals within eight different demographic subgroups based on race, language proficiency, disability and poverty.
The performance goal was comparatively modest for the first administration of the English 2 test, which joins existing tests in biology, government and algebra. Forty percent of students had to pass the test, taken upon completion of sophomore-level English.
All 12 high schools met that standard overall, with pass rates ranging from a low of 44 percent at North County High to a high of 78 percent at Severna Park. All of the problems came within the subgroups. Three high schools, Northeast, Old Mill and South River, missed the mark in reading among special education students. Three others, Arundel, Glen Burnie and North County, missed targets in both reading and math. One school, Annapolis High, fell short among students in the subsidized meals program, an index of poverty.
"If one student misses passing that test, it can mean the difference between making AYP and not making AYP," said Will Myers, principal of Severna Park High. "It's a very small margin of error. That's why we're all walking on eggshells, working very hard to make sure we don't miss that one student."
By 2009, students will have to pass all four High School Assessments, or else earn a minimum score in each subject and a combined passing score on the four, in order to graduate.
At the rate Anne Arundel students are passing the tests now, there probably will be students taking the exams a second, third or fourth time in years to come. Current pass rates on the three older exams range from 66 percent in biology to 69 percent in algebra.
The school-wide goal of making adequate yearly progress has been a bragging right for Anne Arundel schools. Every elementary school in the county made AYP this year, although six middle schools -- Bates, Brooklyn Park, George Fox, Lindale, MacArthur and Old Mill North -- did not. Schools that miss their targets for two consecutive years go on a state watch list. Continuing failure inches them closer to state-mandated intervention, possibly including replacement of teaching and administrative staff members.
Anne Arundel schools officials predict that most high schools will make their performance goals on appeal because of a recent change in federal guidelines for special education. The U.S. Education Department announced earlier this year that more special education students, up to 3 percent of the student population, could be exempted from the regular statewide test and given a different test adjusted to their abilities. In the past, only 1 percent of students could be exempted from the test.
The change means any of the six Anne Arundel schools that missed AYP goals because of special education performance can succeed on appeal if officials can prove that a certain number of low-performing students fell among the 3 percent who should have been exempted from the test.
Four Anne Arundel high schools sit on the state watch list: Annapolis, Meade, North County and Old Mill. Meade met its targets this year, and both North County and Old Mill missed theirs only in special education. A school must meet its targets for two consecutive years to get off the list.
Milam and other education officials say they support the yearly goals and the concept of serving all demographic subgroups. But they lament the fact that a single missed goal, such as reading performance in special education, can result in a high-achieving school's being labeled a failure under No Child Left Behind. Of the seven Anne Arundel high schools that missed their goals this year, four -- Arundel, Northeast, Old Mill and South River -- performed above the state average overall.
"The downside," Milam said, "is that it paints a picture of a school that is based on one kid, two kids, six kids."