State officials could seize worst schools Board gives preliminary OK to sweeping plan


State education officials could seize control of Maryland's worst schools -- even putting them in the hands of private contractors -- under a sweeping proposal that received preliminary approval from the state Board of Education yesterday.

If the board gives final approval to the proposal, Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will receive a powerful new tool in enforcing tough performance standards mandated by the state in recent years.

Those standards, outlined in the annual Maryland School Performance Report or school "report card," include the results of new, custom-designed tests; middle school attendance figures; and high school dropout and graduation test figures.

Technically, as many as a quarter of the state's 1,250 public schools may perform poorly enough to qualify for state control this year, said Dr. Grasmick.

That's because the state's performance standards are based on ambitious statewide goals intended for the year 2000.

But Dr. Grasmick said only a tiny fraction of the schools that fall short this year -- the 10 or 12 worst cases -- are likely to find themselves subject to what the regulation calls "reconstitution."

It would be up to the superintendent to recommend which schools the state board would place under state control, based on severe performance problems.

But the superintendent said she fully expects to use that authority, perhaps as early as the second semester of this school year.

If schools fail to make the progress mandated by the state, she said, "we have an obligation to those young people to think of other remedies."

The proposed regulation caps a school reform process set in motion by the board in 1990, calling for measurable performance standards and sanctions, including possible state takeover, for schools that fail to improve.

"It makes accountability meaningful," said board President Robert C. Embry Jr., who said schools otherwise would have little incentive to remedy poor performance.

Under the proposal approved yesterday, the state board could take control of a particular school and make sweeping changes to its administration and program if the school:

* Fails to post a "satisfactory" grade in one or more areas of the November 1993 state "Report Card," and has average results that are less than satisfactory and declining.

* Fails by the November 1994 "Report Card" to show "substantial and sustained improvement" in its performance results, and score at least satisfactory in one area.

In measuring an elementary school's results, the state would look at how well students performed on new tests intended to measure how well students use what they learn in the classroom.

Middle schools, meanwhile, would be weighed against their attendance, in addition to performance on those tests.

And high schools would be held accountable for their attendance and dropout rates, and for the proportion of students who pass state-mandated reading, math, writing and citizenship tests.

If the board ordered a particular school placed under state control, the local school system would first be allowed to come up with its own plan to deal with the situation.

Such a plan could include a collaboration with the state, or the decision to subcontract a school's operation, said Dr. Grasmick.

But the board could reject the local plan and come up with one of its own, even putting a private contractor in charge of the school, at the local school system's expense.

Board members were united in their support of the regulation, which they see as a way to show poorly performing schools that the state means business.

"Obviously, we're not going to deal with every school, we're going to deal with the worst schools," said Harry Shapiro, a board member.

But he warned that schools should be on notice that "if you are below satisfactory and you are continuing to decline, then you should realize that there is a real possibility" of the state seizing control.

The proposed regulation is expected to get a public hearing in LTC October and the board could vote on a final version as early as November, making the regulation effective by year's end.

The board's action came on the same day it formally approved performance standards for a battery of new tests intended to measure how well students apply what they learn in the classroom.

Those tests, first given in 1991, were custom-designed for the state. They are far different from traditional standardized tests, requiring students to use problem-solving skills and sometimes to work in groups.

Under the standards approved yesterday, schools would rank as "satisfactory" in 1996 if 70 percent of their third-, fifth- and eighth-graders scored in the top three levels of the five-level test in reading, math, social studies and science.

Schools would rank as "excellent" if 25 percent of their students scored in the top two levels.

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