Maryland schools with only a small group of students who can't pass state tests will no longer be labeled as failing and be forced to make draconian changes under a plan approved yesterday by the U.S. Department of Education.
Maryland was one of six states given permission to use a new way of classifying their schools when they don't meet No Child Left Behind standards.
The highly technical changes are likely to have sweeping ramifications for schools in the state that don't meet standards, particularly as the standards rise in the coming years until the school year 2013-2014, when all children in the nation will be expected to pass the tests.
"There is no question that the bar is being raised all the time and that more schools are going to be in these categories," said Maryland schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick, who sought the change from the federal government.
Last year, 233 of the state's schools were labeled as not making adequate progress, and 40 percent of those just barely failed.
Increasingly, schools were penalized when a high percentage of the student body could meet standards, but when the pass rate wasn't also high enough among one or two groups, such as special-education students.
"The very best schools can have some challenges with a subgroup," said Grasmick.
Aberdeen High School in Harford County just missed making the standards. Last year, 71.3 percent of its students passed the English high school assessment, slightly more than the statewide pass rate of 70.9 percent. Instead of celebrating that pass rate, the school was labeled as failing to meet standards because not enough of its special-education students passed.
"It was suggested to us last year that if four additional special-ed kids had passed the reading we would have made it," said Principal Tom Szerensits.
To make matters worse, the school has met those standards, even for special-education students, three of the past five years. But the rules say the school must meet standards two years in a row to have its "troubled" label taken off. So without the plan the federal government approved yesterday, Aberdeen High School might have had to go through one of the following major changes: making the entire staff reapply for their jobs, getting rid of the principal, turning the school over to a nonprofit to run or making it a charter school. Grasmick said for a lot of schools those extreme measures are "a ridiculous solution."
Brooklyn Park Middle School in Anne Arundel County is another example of a school that might have had to go through an entire school overhaul because a few special-education students couldn't pass the tests one year. The school failed to meet standards in 2005 and 2007, but met them in 2006, according to Bob Mosier, a school system spokesman. Grasmick said the new system keeps good schools from being inappropriately labeled and from tarnishing the reputation of some very good schools.
Under the new plan, schools where enough students don't pass state tests will be put into one of two categories: comprehensive and focused. The comprehensive category will be reserved for the worst schools, those that have a significant percentage of all students who can't pass the tests. In those cases, the state will require the schools to go through an upheaval intended to improve teaching and learning.
But about 40 percent of the schools that have a group of students - including students living in poverty, minority students, special-education students and those learning English as a second language - will be put in the "focused" category. Schools given that label will be expected to concentrate academic changes on a particular group of students.