At Bryant Woods Elementary in Columbia, teachers and administrators see the latest statewide test results as a sign that they are moving closer to their goal of narrowing the academic gap between minority and white pupils.
The school - where half of the population is African-American and where many are from low-income families - saw combined scores for third- and fifth-grade black pupils in reading or math increase at least 10 percentage points over a three-year period.
And, taken as a group, third- and fifth-grade pupils who receive free or reduced-price lunches have made solid improvements on the Maryland School Assessment since 2003, according to data released last week. Their combined score in reading and math jumped 7 percentage points each to 64 percent and 59 percent, respectively.
"We have a lot to celebrate, yet we have a lot of work to do," said Jason McCoy, Bryant Woods' principal. "We know we're in the right path. We have to dig deeper and stay the course because what we're doing is working."
Pupils at Bryant Woods received more math and reading instruction, grouped by skill level, and worked with technology across subjects. School administrators and teachers also worked closely with parents and community members, and staff members received training in understanding and teaching pupils from families at the poverty level.
"Having diversity, socioeconomic and ethnicity-wise, is certainly great for our students," McCoy said. "It gives the children a clearer picture of what the real world is like. ... The challenge is making sure we know about our cultures and we understand some of the customs and some of the traditions of the families we have."
Overall, Howard made considerable strides this year among black, Hispanic and other minority pupils, who outpaced the progress of their state counterparts on the MSAs - improvements officials attribute to a series of school initiatives, parental involvement and extra support.
Test results show that the percentage of African-American pupils passing the reading test in grades three through eight ranged from 68.5 percent to 84.2 percent - in some cases 20 points higher than state averages. And for most grades, Hispanic pupils ranked in the 70th percentile in reading.
"Closing the achievement gap is what everyone is trying to do across the country," said Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board. "To see progress when it's been so stubborn has been very exciting."
Still lagging, however, are the passing rates for black and Hispanic pupils in math. Their scores across grades improved this year, but a wider achievement gap exists compared with reading - a pattern that is seen statewide.
For example, the percentage of eighth-grade black pupils passing the math test increased over a three-year period from 31 percent to 45.2 percent. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of their white classmates scored at proficient or advanced levels this year.
Area of concern
Another area of concern for Howard school administrators is generally weaker scores among pupils with limited English skills, special-education needs and those who receive free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty used by school systems.
School officials will continue to focus on those areas, especially in addressing "the needs of every learner," said Terry Alban, the school system's director of pupil assessment and program evaluation.
One program that officials credit with helping schools to meet diverse needs of pupils is the school improvement plan.
The initiative, begun in 2002, targets schools with lagging test scores or with a high percentage of poor pupils.
The schools receive two extra teachers, as well as reading and math support teachers, who work specifically with other teachers for staff development and training.
"I really think it made a huge difference," said Sandra Erickson, the school system's chief academic and administrative officer.
At Guilford Elementary School in Columbia, the extra resources have been used to implement a reading intervention team, which provides pupils with extra reading instruction, said Genee Varlack, the school's principal.
Some pupils also receive double periods or more of instruction in math, working closely with instructional assistants who have been trained in the subject.
The efforts appear to be paying off. Overall, most scores of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in reading and math increased from last year.
And school administrators say they are also seeing signs that the achievement gap is narrowing. On the reading test, the score for African-American fifth-graders jumped nearly 10 percentage points over a three-year period, to 76 percent this year from 66.7 percent in 2003.
Black fifth-graders at Guilford also performed far better on the math test - 80 percent passed this year - than did black fifth-graders statewide, where only 52.8 percent passed.
"We understand that it's one strand in the whole scheme of things," Varlack said. "Nevertheless, it's encouraging to our efforts. My staff worked hard. It validates their efforts that we're doing this for a reason."