While Harford County pupils overall chalked up impressive results on state math and reading tests, administrators fear that some schools might not meet state standards for improvement.
Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said she is particularly concerned about test scores of low-income middle-schoolers.
Maryland School Assessment scores released last week showed that at Aberdeen, Edgewood and Magnolia middle schools, more than two-thirds of eighth-graders failed the math test. More than 40 percent of the same pupils failed the reading test.
"That's obviously where I'm going to be digging the deepest," Haas said last week. "Those are the schools I'm concerned about. It seems to be a middle-school phenomenon we're struggling with."
This month, the state will analyze test results and determine which schools did not show required improvement from last year's tests.
Last year, Edgewood and Aberdeen middle schools failed to meet standards for improvement because not enough low-income or special-education pupils passed the tests.
Schools that do not show improvement for two consecutive years enter the state's "school improvement program," which provides extra resources in exchange for required academic results. Schools in the program that fail to improve eventually face sanctions, including the elimination of federal funds.
Both Aberdeen and Edgewood posted improved scores this year. At Edgewood, 27.5 percent of eighth-graders passed the math test, compared with 25.2 percent a year ago; 58.6 percent passed the reading test, compared with 47 percent a year ago.
Edgewood Middle Principal Wayne H. Perry said he welcomed the progress, however slight.
But he also worried about public perception of his school in light of the MSA scores.
"Using a snapshot MSA result and using attendance to determine whether a school is successful or not - I think that's risky," he said. "I'm fine with being held accountable, and I think MSA is a way to do that."
But he said he uses additional measures, such as report card grades, to determine whether his pupils are improving. "I'm not living and dying by results of the MSAs," he said.
Perry, in his first year as Edgewood's principal, said his pupils face significant disadvantages. For one, they attend a school that has been under renovation since the start of the year. Most classrooms lack air conditioning.
He added that many pupils come from low-income families in which both parents work. Nearly four in 10 children at the 1,276-pupil school receive free or reduced-price meals.
At Aberdeen Middle, fewer than a third of eighth-graders passed the math exam, and about half passed the reading exam.
Magnolia eighth-graders fared about the same: 30.3 percent passed the math exam, and 56.4 percent passed reading - both slight drops from a year ago. As at Aberdeen Middle, about 40 percent of Magnolia pupils receive free or reduced-price meals.
By contrast, at Bel Air, Fallston and Southampton middle schools, at least 84 percent of eighth-graders passed the reading test, and 71 percent passed the math test. At those schools, fewer than 10 percent of pupils receive free or reduced-price meals.