When Maryland's top school officer proposed that the state back away from its tough high school testing program last week, one reason might have been the troubling performance of some suburban schools.
An alarming pattern of failure is surfacing: Minority students, especially African-Americans, are struggling to pass the exams in the suburban classrooms their families had hoped would provide a better education.
"It is a wake-up call to African-Americans in Maryland," said Dunbar Brooks, president of the state school board and former president of the Baltimore County school board. "For many African-Americans, the mere fact that your child attends a suburban school district does not make academic achievement automatic."
Baltimore City and its suburbs released school-by-school results last week for the Class of 2009 - the first group that must pass the statewide High School Assessments in algebra, English, biology and government to get a diploma.
What they show is that in Baltimore County alone, nearly a third of the system's roughly two dozen high schools had pass rates of 60 percent or less. Also, high schools with predominantly African-American populations, such as Randallstown and Woodlawn, had passing rates mostly below 50 percent.
The results were similar, if not so pronounced, in Anne Arundel County, where some of the most urbanized schools - North County, Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Meade - performed well below the rest of the system.
Educators point to the gap in achievement between African-Americans and whites as one reason for the slump among inner suburban schools - although not the only one.
Until now, the achievement gap in Baltimore County has been masked by county averages. Some of Maryland's highest-performing schools are in the county's largely white and well-to-do northern corridor, including Towson, Dulaney, Carver and Hereford high schools. Those schools, along with the Eastern and Western technical magnets, boost the county averages.
In Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, disparities between the highest- and lowest- performing schools were not so apparent. Most high schools there had passing rates of 80 percent or more.
African-Americans have long been migrating from Baltimore City to county neighborhoods. The number of African-Americans enrolled in county public schools has increased by 21 percent since 2000, and minorities account for almost 50 percent of the school population.
To be sure, Baltimore City's neighborhood high schools reported bleak results this year, with some pass rates lower than 20 percent. On the other hand, the city's perennial high performers, the citywide academic magnets - Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High, the School for the Arts and City College - had pass rates similar to top suburban schools.
A handful of other academic and technical high schools in the city - such as Dunbar High, Merganthaler Voc-Tech and several new specialty high schools - performed as well as or better than some predominantly African-American suburban high schools.
Critics and activists in Baltimore County see the results in some schools, such as ultramodern New Town High in Owings Mills, as grossly out-of-step with area demographics not related to race.
More than 90.5 percent of area residents have earned a high school diploma and 42.8 percent have at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and median household income is $53,000.
"It's inexcusable," said Ella White Campbell, a retired city educator and executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council. "You can't say it's income that's the problem. And education levels are very high. ... The disconnect is in the fact that you have an educated community that has not realized kids are not getting the basics."
New Town High, which opened in 2003, has about 1,000 students, 92 percent of whom are African-American.
Walking the hallways yesterday at New Town High, Principal Barbara Cheswick said she knows the school's high school assessment results don't paint a pretty picture. But her staff is working on the problem.
"It's about establishing expectations and communicating those to parents, teachers and students," said Cheswick, in her second year at the helm of the four-year-old school. "As a principal, I have high expectations of students, regardless of their background."
Alexandria Foy, a 16-year-old junior from Owings Mills, said she passed all but the English exam, missing by only two points. To help her pass it the next time around, the school has enrolled her in a "coach class."
Junior Evan Watson, 15, said students should take more responsibility. He said teachers provided plenty of opportunities to prepare with practice exams, but too many students didn't take them seriously.
"If you poll this school, 98 percent would say they are going to college," he said. "But you have to get out of high school first, and a lot of them aren't doing what they need to do."
Ethan Diggs, 16, said he worries that the school will undeservedly develop a poor reputation. "The academics are good here," he said. "Some kids just don't care."
The latest round of test scores indicates how serious the results would be for many middle-class families if large numbers of children are denied a diploma in 2009.
"It is shocking, in the sense that these children should be achieving at a higher level," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, an organization that has studied high-stakes testing across the nation.
"Now you can see the motivation," he said, for Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to propose that students who repeatedly fail tests have an opportunity do a senior project instead. The State Board of Education will consider the plan next month.
Both Jennings and Brooks said the latest results will foster a new debate about minority achievement here. But the Baltimore County results are not news among suburban districts elsewhere across the nation. The question is why and what to do about the problem.
A Harvard University study commissioned five years ago showed that parents of black and Hispanic students in suburban schools were often less well educated than whites, that there were fewer books in their houses, and fewer computers.
In Baltimore County, Campbell worries that suburban teachers are too reluctant to criticize students in predominantly African-American schools - and unwittingly set them up for failure.
"There's a racial divide in our schools," Campbell said. "One of the reasons students are failing is that too many teachers, especially in minority schools, believe they shouldn't correct black kids' language. In other words, this is the way they talk, and you just accept it. ... But you must correct them, because you've got to remember that the bedrock for all these tests is English."
The national debate on the issue has intensified in recent years because of strict testing requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Half the states require high school graduates to pass subject-area tests, and many have seen similarly poor passing rates.
Like Maryland officials, administrators elsewhere have opted for an alternative to testing - at least for a few years to give stragglers a chance to catch up.
But after several years of enforcing tests for graduation, Jennings said, high percentages of students are usually passing. The question, he said, is whether Grasmick and the state board can muster enough legislative support to keep the standard intact.
He argued that students don't consider the exams seriously until they see their peers failing to get diplomas.
Whatever course Maryland chooses, parents are likely to begin asking questions of their schools and teachers as the deadline for passing nears.
Brooks, the state school board president, said he believes the scores will invite a "much richer dialogue" between parents and the schools about how to prepare students for college or a job.
At New Town High, Cheswick might not be able to wait. She is analyzing test results, putting the strongest teachers in subjects that are tested, and is getting more training for her staff.
A key effort, she said, centers on making sure that students and parents understand the stakes. "We have to show the impact," she said. "We want to help kids understand this is their show, and we're here to do what we have to do to help them do well."