Maybe it has been the years of emphasis Howard County schools have placed at the pre-school and kindergarten level. It could be increased interventions -- one school suggests that offering more field trips increases vocabulary. One thing is for sure: Fourth-graders in the county recorded the biggest increases on this year's Maryland School Assessments.
Fourth-graders had the highest percentage of students in the county scoring at proficient or above on the assessments -- 93 percent in reading and 91 percent in math. And for the first time, all student groups in fourth grade met the stringent local standard of 70 percent proficiency in reading.
Take Running Brook Elementary, for example. Fourth-grade reading scores increased 8.8 percentage points to 94.1 percent of students at the proficient level, and math scores increased 11.3 percentage points to 92.3 percent of students at the proficient level.
Lisa Booth, who has been principal of the 377-student Columbia school for four years, said strides are being made because of the effort of the entire staff.
"They are very persistent and tenacious with the students to move them forward," Booth said.
Aside from a slight drop in third-grade math scores, every grade level at Running Brook increased test scores.
African-American students at Running Brook increased reading scores to 81 percent at the proficient level, up from 66 percent last year. In math, African-Americans increased scores to 77 percent at the proficient level, up from 70 percent.
"We're continually looking at the kids' progress," Booth said. "The teachers come up with good ideas, and they are willing to share with one another and learn from one another."
Overall, Howard County followed the state trend in closing the achievement gap within all student groups.
For example, 86 percent of Howard's fourth-grade African-American students and 82 percent of the fourth-grade Hispanic students scored at the proficient level or above in reading.
Test scores for middle school students remained steady.
County middle school students' reading scores dropped by 1.6 percentage points to 85.1 percent achieving proficiency; county middle school students increased math scores 0.5 percentage points to 80.7 percent achieving proficiency.
Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin remarked: "While we are very pleased with the performance of our fourth-graders, we still have work to do across the system, especially at the middle school level. We need to continue the improvements we are seeing for all our student groups. We cannot be content until every student succeeds."
At Running Brook, the implementation of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program and the use of field trips have also helped to increase scores, Booth said.
"By going on field trips, they are applying what they are learning in school," Booth said. "It brings their education full-circle."