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Nearly third of Harford County’s public schools earned a five-star rating in Maryland’s ranking system, bucking a state trend with 10 schools improving their ranking from 2018.

The state rating system, introduced last year, gives schools one to five stars based on a variety of criteria — from student achievement on tests and attendance to whether students are offered a well-rounded curriculum.

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The latest star rankings, released Tuesday, give Harford 17 five-star schools out of its 53 learning institutions. Harford County had 10 five-star schools a year ago.

School system officials were “generally happy” with the rankings, particular the number of schools that improved their ratings.

“Definitely very positive news as far as working with schools over the last year and looking at their needs and meeting with them individually to say here is where an area of focus would be and what could you do and we’ve just really saw some tremendous growth in some of our schools,” said Phillip Snyder, supervisor of accountability for Harford County Public Schools.

“That then matriculated into an increase in the star rating.”

Snyder said many of the schools may have been on the bubble in last year’s ratings and new metrics this year — science for grades 5 and 8, as well as a school climate survey — may have been a factor.

“A lot of our schools that increased had very positive climate surveys for their students and their educators,” he said.

While the number of Harford’s public schools earning four or five stars remained the same at 37; the number of county schools in the county earning a three-star rating decreased slightly.

Five Harford schools slipped by one star in the rankings, including two that dropped from three stars to two stars.

Regarding schools that dropped in their ratings, Snyder said the executive leadership team met as soon as the data was made available by the state and went over it school-by-school.

“Conversations are still occurring as to why [certain schools dropped from three stars to two] and we’re scrutinizing the data to see what resources they need,” Snyder said. “It’s still early, we’re still getting some of the pieces of the data in from the state.”

Of the 10 schools that saw their star rating go up, nine improved from four-star schools to five-star schools. All 10 were elementary schools.

Bel Air, Forest Hill, Forest Lakes, Norrisville, North Bend, North Harford, Prospect Mill, Red Pump and Youth’s Benefit elementary schools all saw their ratings improve to five stars. Church Creek Elementary went up from three to four stars.

C. Milton Wright, Fallston, North Harford, Patterson Mill and Harford Technical high schools, as well as Churchville, Homestead-Wakefield, Jarrettsville and elementary maintained their five-star ratings from 2018.

Bel Air High and Emmorton Elementary schools slipped from five stars to four stars in 2019, two of five schools to see a decrease.

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Joppatowne Elementary fell from four stars to three. Edgewood and Magnolia middle schools both dropped from three stars to two stars, joining Aberdeen Middle as the only other two-star school in the county.

The Center for Educational Opportunity, an alternative school in Aberdeen for students in grades 7 through 12, remained the county’s only one-star school.

Overall, 20 of Harford’s schools received four stars and 12 schools earned three stars in 2019. Last year, 27 schools received a four-star rating and 14 received three stars.

Snyder praised the new model for providing school system’s with data by specific student groups that is much more detailed than what school system’s had received in the past.

“Those have been really, really good conversations because we can see some of our student groups are changing in our county and those metrics are now available,” he said. “So that’s been eye-opening, as well as, depending on the performance of a student group, that can really show a strength or show where we need to have some growth.”

He recognized that the ratings are “a snapshot in time,” that “doesn’t tell the whole story.”

“You’re not going to hear some of the traumatic individual student concerns that we have in some of our schools, certainly in schools that have serious needs [like] poverty,” he said.

“No accountability model is going to ever be perfect to show the big picture, but it’s really individualized meetings with the principal to say, ‘What are some things that are in your control that you can focus on?’" he said. "And that’s really, in my opinion, what we do as a school system.”

Statewide trends

Statewide, more public schools earned an average rating under Maryland’s accountability system that for the first time included science test scores and the results of school surveys of students and educators.

A third of all schools received three stars this year, up from about a quarter last year, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun. Both the number of top schools — with five star ratings — and the number of failing schools — with one star — decreased across Maryland.

While the school rating formula added the survey of students and educators as well as elementary and middle school science scores for 2019, it’s not clear whether those caused the changes in this year’s ratings. Not enough analysis has been done to determine what contributed to the shifts, said Dara Shaw, the Maryland State Department of Education’s director of research.

While some critics expected the survey to offer a rosy view of schools, the survey results provided a more nuanced picture of how students feel about their teachers, their fellow students, drug use and bullying. Teachers also offered what some officials called sobering concerns about the culture and safety of their schools. All students in grades five through 11 took the online survey.

“Students feel a little less favorably about their schools than educators did,” Shaw said.

Overall, students rate their schools a five out of a possible 10. Students said they had good relationships with their teachers, but they ranked the relationships between students in their school as a 3. Both students and educators seemed most concerned about their school’s safety and, in some cases, the physical condition of the facility.

Students on average rated their physical safety as a 3.5 compared, while educators had a slightly more favorable view of their schools.

Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said the survey “is validating what we are hearing.” She said schools need more school counselors, psychologists and smaller class sizes so that behavior is better and students feel safer.

In a year when education funding is likely to be at the top of the Maryland General Assembly’s agenda, the shift in ratings could add fuel to the debate over whether state and local governments should spend $4 billion more a year by 2030. The school spending increases are aimed at improving achievement for students and elevating Maryland’s public school system to one of the best in the nation.

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In the Baltimore region, Baltimore County showed the largest decline and Anne Arundel County the largest improvement over last year.

Maryland’s accountability system, which was required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, is a more holistic look at schools that is less dependent on student test scores than past rating systems. The Maryland General Assembly, in a law passed in 2017, said achievement and test scores could count for no more than 62 percent of the overall rating.

That frustrated some school board members who now believe that low-performing schools are being let off the hook. On the other hand, the new system has been applauded by others who see it as giving more weight to a school’s ability to lift the achievement of children living in concentrated poverty. The rating system gives points for schools whose students make significant progress, even if they can’t pass the state standardized tests.

Children’s test scores generally correspond to their parents’ income levels, with wealthier students scoring better on tests than students from low income families. Next year for the first time, the state said it will have a system that allows comparisons between schools with similar demographics.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Wilborn Nobles and Naomi Harris contributed to this report.

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