Though school officials learned this week that Howard County's high school seniors turned in one of the state's best performances on required assessment tests, they say they are now focused on a dual-option strategy to help the relative handful who did not do well.
Howard students placed fourth in Maryland in percentage of seniors who passed the High School Assessments, in which students are tested in four subject areas and must pass all to graduate. Nearly 93 percent of seniors - 3,329 students - passed the tests, and officials say they are working with the 108 students who have not passed so that they can receive a diploma in May.
"We are most concerned with the seniors and their circumstances," said the school system's testing coordinator, Portia White. "Our numbers are relatively small; we should be able to reach those students. The schools certainly know who they are, and they are making sure that something is being done."
Howard trailed only Carroll (95.1 percent), Calvert (94.3) and Frederick counties (93.7) in percentage of seniors who passed all four tests.
In 2006, the HSA tests took on additional importance, becoming a graduation requirement for the Class of 2009. To graduate, students now must pass assessment tests for biology, American government, English II and Algebra I.
Last school year, the State Department of Education added an option that allows students to complete projects instead of passing the tests to qualify to graduate. Students who do not fulfill either option will have an opportunity to complete the requirements during the summer so they can graduate in August.
Three months ago, schools identified seniors who did not pass the HSA, said Clarissa B. Evans, executive director of secondary curricular programs for the county system. School employees formed "intervention teams" that used various high school records to identify the student's strengths. They also adjusted the student's schedule to better align with the student's strengths.
Team members also met with students and their parents to form a plan. Students who did not pass the HSA were paired with a "project manager," a teacher who oversees the students as they work to complete a project.
For example, a project in biology could entail a series of lab experiments that must be successfully completed. While the students are working on the projects, they can continue taking the tests in hopes of passing one of the two options.
The first set of projects will be reviewed in December, Evans said. Students will get feedback with suggestions on how to complete the plan, or they will receive a letter stating that their project has been accepted.
"It just makes sense for the students to do both," White said. "Any time you take the test and your scores increase, the number of projects you have to do decreases."
Top school officials said they are pleased with the county's results, which were released Tuesday by the state.
"Central administrators and staff members in the schools are closely monitoring each student who has not met the requirement," Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said in a prepared statement. "We know their names, we understand their situations and we are giving them every opportunity to be successful."
River Hill High topped the county with 99 percent of its seniors passing the four tests. The Clarksville school was followed by Glenelg (97.8), Atholton (97.8), Howard (96.3), Marriotts Ridge (96.6), Mount Hebron (93.7), Centennial (92.8), Reservoir (90.3), Hammond (90.2), Wilde Lake (89.5), Long Reach (88.4) and Oakland Mills (79.6).
The data tracks performance through May, White said. Up through that point, 137 students had yet to take at least one of the assessments. White said that some students have taken or retaken one or more of the tests in August or this month. Some students may be planning to take a test on one of the coming testing dates in January and April. Others may be completing projects, she said.
School officials said this week that they will analyze data to come up with strategies for underclassmen, and subgroups that have not passed the assessments. Further information will be presented during a December school board meeting, White said.
"We have not dug down deeply into it," White said. "We got [the information] today. We will be looking at it."