Weak performances among special education students on the Maryland School Assessment tests continues to be a challenge for Howard County school officials.
This week's release of preliminary data indicating whether schools met state standards in reading and math showed that special education pupils at three schools - Phelps Luck Elementary, Cradlerock School and Patuxent Valley Middle School - did not perform well enough on the high-stakes exam to make adequate progress this year.
"We're going to look at the data and find out what we need to do differently and get the job done," said Sterlind S. Burke, principal at Patuxent Valley.
At a fourth school, Wilde Lake Middle, pupils with limited English skills failed to make sufficient strides on the reading test; two of 13 pupils passed.
Meanwhile, special education pupils at two middle schools - Murray Hill and Elkridge Landing - who did not make adequate progress in reading last year met targets this year.
Schools that do not meet academic standards for two consecutive years are added to the state's list of failing schools.
State education officials added Homewood School, an alternative learning program for middle and high school students who have difficulty in traditional classroom settings, to the list for the second year - a mistake Howard administrators attributed to coding errors.
Homewood students who are at the center temporarily should have been accountable to their home schools, Howard officials say. An appeal was filed last week, and state officials said it likely will be accepted.
In suburban school systems around the Baltimore region, the poor performance among special education students was the culprit in many schools not making adequate progress.
Terry Alban, Howard's director of student assessment and program evaluation, said students with disabilities are making strides, though not as quickly as the state exam demands under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Newly relaxed federal rules regarding disabled children will allow the state to introduce a modified version of the Maryland School Assessment, which state officials say will be simpler and shorter. Two percent of disabled students statewide can take the modified exam, starting next year.
As a result, "schools won't be missing adequate yearly progress ... when in fact, that kid is growing and improving," Alban said. "We don't have an assessment tool to see that or to validate that [now]."
Based on the potential impact of the modified MSA, had some students taken it this year, Howard school officials plan to appeal the state's ruling on Phelps Luck, Cradlerock and Patuxent Valley, Alban said.
"I hate to see teachers so disheartened and saying, 'We've failed,'" she said. "They did make improvements."
An appeal is also planned for Wilde Lake Middle because pupils with limited English skills who should have been exempt mistakenly took the exam this year, Alban said.
A closer look at the schools' raw data show that a handful of pupils passing the test would have made the difference in whether the school hit or missed the mark, she said.
For example, three of 21 special education pupils at Phelps Luck Elementary passed the math test. Two additional pupils making the mark would have deemed the school as making "adequate yearly progress," Alban said.
At Patuxent Valley, special education pupils did not meet standards in reading with 28 of 81 pupils passing the test.
Burke, the principal, said reading intervention programs will continue to target pupils who need extra support.
"The scores, though they don't reflect well in meeting the state standards, I believe we're getting the best we can from our students," Burke said. "We have enough reading programs here to reach the whole spectrum of kids."
About 10 percent of the Howard's 47,000-student population receive special education services.
Robert Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the school system uses "multilayer" approaches to help disabled children, including a co-teaching model in which classes are taught by a special educator and a regular teacher.
Moreover, school administrators and teachers are working to make intervention programs inclusive, meaning children with disabilities get extra help in classes with nondisabled students and vice versa, Glascock said.
"It is making sure we provide the least restrictive model for students," he said.
At Murray Hill - where disabled pupils made the mark this year after failing to meet adequate progress last year - special education team leader Kristol Taylor attributed the improvements to the inclusive approach.
"We looked at students who were struggling and didn't limit it to special education students," Taylor said. "It was an effort to not only help special education students meet [adequate yearly progress], but all students."
Howard County schools that did not make adequate progress this year:
Patuxent Valley Middle School
Phelps Luck Elementary School
Wilde Lake Middle School
Schools that did not meet standards last year but met them in 2005:
Elkridge Landing Middle School
Murray Hill Middle School
Source: Howard County public schools