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Harford school system gets pretty good grades [Editorial]

If Harford County Public Schools were a child, the latest statewide report card on public education it received from the state board of education would be reason for an ice cream reward, but not necessarily a new bicycle reward.

The local public school system saw its overall score slip slightly, even as the statewide average slipped a bit more. For the most part, the rate of tested students passing a range of statewide tests in math and reading was above 90 percent in many categories, and above 80 percent in most others. It was only in the seventh and eighth grade math scores that the rate of students passing fell below 80 percent.

So, if 80 percent is a B and 90 percent is an A, that would seem to indicate that Harford County Public Schools got mostly A's and B's with one C. Unfortunately, the percentage grade analogy just doesn't work when it comes to evaluating the school system's score on the latest round of Maryland School Assessment tests.

What a 90 percent passing rate means for the school system is 10 percent of the students in that testing group failed. An 80 percent passing rate means 20 percent of students failed. Less than 80 percent, and suddenly the numbers don't look so great.

It is important in all this not to lose sight of the important reality that most Harford County Public Schools students are passing the tests. Actually, the terms used aren't pass and fail, but rather ratings like "advanced" or "proficient" for passing and "basic" in place of needs help or not quite on track. The goal for the state is to have all students in every school be scoring "advanced" or "proficient" on all tests.

One of the good things about the MSA test is it has meaning both for schools and individual students. Schools and their staffs are evaluated based on the percentages of students who test at advanced or proficient levels. Parents receive notices as to how their children do on the tests, and passing the tests is linked to advancement and, eventually, graduation.

The state superintendent, Lillian Lowery, offered reasons for what amounts to a statewide marginal decline in scores, including that federal standards for what is being tested have changed and there was a discrepancy between what was being taught and what was being tested.

Fair enough, but what is being taught and tested is likely to change over time as technology improves and society advances, and school systems need to be able to adjust, if they are to properly prepare new generations for life in society. In other words, a year of slipping in the scores could have detrimental effects on a generation of students, especially if it goes from a one-time stumble to a downward trend.

There's no indication that the slip, either in Harford County or across Maryland, constitutes a trend. Indeed, the Maryland School Assessment Tests, in their current incarnation, haven't been around all that long and the general trend for the county and the state has been in the right direction.

Still, given that Harford County has as many as 20 percent of students taking a particular branch of the test not scoring at the passing levels of "advanced" or "proficient," there is a good deal of progress to be made.

Unfortunately, it is likely a lot of time will be spent appealing scores and trying to make the numbers look a little bit better for individual schools and school systems. This kind of effort is a fool's errand. While the testing regimen may be flawed in some ways that affect one or another school or school system differently from others, nothing devised by humans is ever perfect. Efforts spent appealing and reconfiguring numbers would be better directed at identifying individual programs, teachers and students who need help and getting them that help.

Another good thing about the test, as it is set up these days, is it has a noble goal of leaving no child behind, which is to say figuring out a way to ensure that all the students educated in the public system are proficient or advanced in the basic knowledge they need. It remains to be seen if any human endeavor can achieve a 100 percent success rate, but it should always be the goal.

As for how this compares to how things were done in the good old days when the three R's of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic were the supposed gold standard of teaching, we'll never know. It is only in recent decades that anyone has thought to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, schools and school systems based on a uniform standard. In all likelihood, given the upward trend in scores since testing began, the good old days probably weren't all that good in public education, at least not for everyone.

That a goal of educating everyone is in place and a standard for measuring has been set are good things. What needs to be done with these latest results is evaluate them to see what is working, what isn't and what needs to be changed to get all students learning what they need to know to function in society.

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