Howard County officials say they are dismayed but determined to improve after learning that for the first time two county schools failed to meet federal test standards two years in a row.
Murray Hill and Oakland Mills middle schools were included on a list of 176 poor-performing schools statewide. Any school failing to meet the standards for two consecutive years is classified as"needs improvement." If a school fails five years in a row, the state may take it over.
School board Chairman Diane Mikulis said yesterday that the results point out that "middle school is one area where we need to focus more attention."
"It's not a list you want to make, but it's something you need to deal with," she said.
Other board members seemed to take the scores personally.
"Really, when I look at the scores I get very depressed. I want the best for the children who need it," said board member Patricia S. Gordon, who added that the school system has been adding resources to both schools.
Board member Larry Cohen was more optimistic. "I'm confident the school system will do what we need to do," he said. "Those are great schools." Cohn was principal of Oakland Mills Middle from 1991 to 1994.
Terry Alban, the school system's executive director for strategic planning assessment and program evaluation, said Howard's schools are getting better. "Many of our schools, including these two schools, have seen improved performance overall," based on a report presented to the school board last month, Alban said. But as standards go higher, "even improved performance isn't enough."
Under the federal testing rules, every individual demographic group of students must reach the 66 percent passing level for the school to pass.
At Murray Hill Middle in the southeastern part of the county, most students met the "adequate yearly progress" threshold, according to charts on the State Department of Education's Web site, mdreportcard.org. However, free and reduced-price lunch and special education students scored too low in reading, and special education students fell short in math.
At Oakland Mills Middle in Columbia, according to the charts, reading proficiency was the problem for black students and students who receive free or reduced-price lunches or are in special education classes.
Gordon said both schools are getting extra help but are moving targets for educators because of changing student populations and test standards.
"Oakland Mills is a school that has a large turnover in students," she said. "I know the frustrations of working with students and having them move."
But that doesn't make the scores less upsetting, she said.
Also, federal requirements change every year, Gordon and board Vice Chairman Frank Aquino said.
"The bar gets higher every single year" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, Aquino said.
"When you look at the matrix of all the student groups that have to pass this, it's very complicated," he said. "Just because a school does not make AYP does not mean it's a bad school. All the schools are good."
Board member Ellen Flynn Giles said the results help the county focus on small groups of students who need help the most.
"In the past, systems were allowed to say that 85 percent were doing well and not meet the needs of 15 percent."
Aquino and others noted that results can vary, based on how relatively few students in certain categories do.
At Murray Hill Middle, if 19 more free or reduced-price lunch students and 22 more special education students had passed in reading and 30 more special education students had passed in math, the school would not be on the state list, based on the State Department of Education's charts.
At Oakland Mills Middle, if 19 more African-Americans, 21 more free or reduced-price lunch students and 20 special education children had passed in reading, Oakland Mills would be off the list, based on the charts.
Although County Council members don't run the schools, they are interested in the test results, several said.
Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat whose district includes Oakland Mills, said "it shows we've got some work to do."
"It really highlights the importance not only in our rhetoric but our action in addressing the performance gap," he said.
Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat whose district includes Murray Hill Middle, called for doing more at both schools.
"We've got these star schools, but we've got to be focusing on the others, too," she said.