Three years into national education reforms that strive to close achievement gaps, the rate of academic progress among special-education pupils and English language learners continues to pose a challenge for Carroll County schools officials.
In Carroll, one elementary school and two middle schools failed to make the mark this year, mainly because of weak performances in reading and math among special-education pupils on the Maryland State Assessments, according to preliminary data released last week.
Schools officials maintain that they are seeing steady progress among special-education pupils, just not at the rate that state standards require.
"The issue becomes ... the percentage of improvement that each subgroup has to make, and that increases each year," said Stephany Savar, Carroll's supervisor of special education. "Statistically, [our progress] is not as great or as fast as the state wants."
Meeting those state standards is something school officials "are dealing with aggressively," she said.
"We absolutely still expect progress among our students with disabilities," Savar said. "But [that progress] wouldn't be at the same rate as students without disabilities because a student with disabilities has, by definition, difficulty learning in the traditional ways."
Of Carroll's nearly 29,000-student population, about 3,750 children receive special-education services because they have learning difficulties that might be caused by physical, medical, cognitive, emotional or neurological factors.
This year, special-education pupils at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster failed to make sufficient progress in reading and math, while pupils in the same subgroup fell short in reading at North Carroll Middle in Hampstead.
At Robert Moton, the reading results among special-education pupils fell short at each grade level tested. The goal was for at least 39.1 percent of the pupils to pass. Among third-graders, 20 percent passed; among fourth-graders, 26.3 percent; and among fifth-graders, 33.3 percent.
Robert Moton's math results were slightly better, where the goal was for at least 34.7 percent of pupils to pass the exam. While fifth-grade math results among special-education pupils fell far short of the mark (16.7 percent passed); third-graders (40 percent passing) and fourth-graders (36.8 percent passing) met the state standard.
At North Carroll Middle, eighth-grade reading fell short of the mark, with just 28.1 percent of the pupils passing the test. The goal was for at least 42.2 percent of the children to pass. Pupils in sixth grade (42.9 percent passing) and seventh grade (48.2 percent passing) cleared the hurdle.
Meanwhile, pupils with limited English skills at West Middle in Westminster did not meet the standards in reading. While the goal was for at least 13.5 percent to pass, only 10 percent did.
"This is further indication that these two areas need to become very high priority," said Greg Bricca, the school system's research and accountability director. "We need to continue to focus on these two categories, in particular, and on improvement on the whole" across the district.
Bricca said school officials will spend the coming weeks poring over the data to make sure they are accurate as they weigh their options to appeal last week's special-education results. The district has 30 days to appeal to state education officials.
He said local schools officials will determine whether to appeal the results based on recent federal changes that will allow the state to introduce a modified Maryland State Assessment. The modified test is a shorter and simpler version that, had students been able to take it this year, might have altered this year's results.
Savar said the special-education staff will continue to concentrate on those students who are struggling to meet the standards. Part of that effort will include expanding reading and math intervention programs, providing resources teachers and offering more professional development for teachers.
"We look at students where they are and where they need to be," she said. "And we tailor instruction to that."
A resource that will continue to be available is a consulting teacher, who visits schools to demonstrate effective ways to teach math to special-education students, Savar said. The position was created last year.
In addition, the school board has approved funding for about 12 new positions in the coming school year, including money for six or seven teachers, more instructional assistants, speech and language pathologists as well as occupational and physical therapists.
School officials, including Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, routinely applaud the intentions of the federal law, saying it means they can't hide behind averages because they are required to look at the scores of several subsets of students based on race, poverty level, special education and English language skills.
But with the bar being raised each year - ultimately rising to 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014 - meeting those standards becomes increasingly challenging.