Howard County moves to toughen standards for middle school pupils; Grades would determine extracurricular eligibility


The Howard County school board is poised to toughen its standards in middle school for advancing from one grade to the next and its policy for participation in sports and activities.

At a school board meeting Thursday, the five-member panel considered stringent new policies that, if adopted, would affect children who are in middle school in 2001.

The crux of the changes:

In advancing from sixth to seventh grade or from seventh to eighth grade, a child must pass all courses, and cannot earn a final grade lower than "C" in the core subjects of language arts, social studies, reading, math and science.

Statewide, the minimum standard for passing courses is "D."

If the requirements aren't met, the child will "automatically be considered for retention," the new policy reads.

In advancing from eighth grade to ninth grade, a child must pass all courses and receive no final grades lower than "C" in core subjects. The child also must pass all Maryland functional tests in reading, writing and math.

If a child does not meet those requirements, he or she may be required to go to summer school before being promoted and also may be required to take "supplemental academic courses." Pupils who do not attend summer school will be retained.

In advancing from eighth grade to ninth grade, pupils must have a final average of "C" or better in core courses and have no final failing grades in eighth grade, in order to participate in high school extracurricular activities.

Howard County has no academic standards for eighth-graders who want to participate in high school activities.

The board is considering the changes in order to make middle school children more accountable for their performance in school and on standardized tests.

"We wanted to add some teeth, some rigor to the middle schools, particularly," said board member Stephen C. Bounds. "There were entirely too many students who were not taking middle school seriously."

Bounds said a school district report several years ago pointed out that 10 percent of ninth-grade students failed their freshman year because they weren't prepared in middle school.

The district strengthened its curriculum -- adding reading at all middle school grades, for example -- but wanted to "add some teeth," Bounds said.

Alice Haskins, director of middle schools, said she thinks parents will embrace the new, tougher policies.

"The curriculum is strong; it's very strong," Haskins said. "It's kids' willingness to perform that we had to deal with. You have got to have something really motivating them. And in order to change the perceptions that kids have about middle school, we decided to up the ante."

"The middle school years are getting a lot of attention," said Bob Rice, assistant state superintendent for research and development.

By the end of the school year, Rice said, the state will release the results of a 15-month study of middle schools, with recommendations for school districts about improving the academic program during those years.

Rice said other school districts also are toughening their promotion and retention policies in middle schools, but Howard County may be the first to prohibit incoming ninth-graders from participating in activities if their grades are too low in eighth grade.

"That's an interesting approach," Rice said, "and should get the attention of parents and their students about the importance of being prepared for high school."

The school board will hold a public hearing on the proposed policy changes, as well as a change in the drug-and-alcohol policy as it pertains to seniors, on May 11.

The board is scheduled to vote on adopting the policies May 25.

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