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June 22, 2004

A Wasted Opportunity Presents Itself Again

John W. Ashbury

There was some great news last week for Frederick County Public Schools when the state announced the results of the Maryland School Assessment tests given in February. There was also some disheartening news.

Overall FCPS looks pretty good. Our students exceeded the average state score by some impressive percentages, but in too many cases, FCPS dropped in its ranking among the 24 school jurisdictions.

A major caveat to remember in all of this is that the children tested in each grade are not the same ones who were tested in those grades last year. Now, come next year, we will be able to compare the results last year with the new ones and we will be comparing the same children.

Here are some of the results.

Third grade children across the state raised their reading level by nearly 13 percent, while Frederick County pupils improved their scores by seven percent. The state children had a lot further to go, but FCPS pupils ranked 8th in Maryland in 2003, but dropped to 14th this year.

Math scores for third graders in Maryland rose 7.1 percent, while scores for Frederick County students increased 2.1 percent. Again, however, Frederick students were ranked 9th in the state in 2003, but dropped to 14th this year.

Fifth graders in FCPS showed a decline of 1.8 percent in reading abilities, while state wide fifth graders showed a 2.7 percent improvement. And, once again, FCPS students dropped in state rankings, this time from 6th to 9th.

In math, FCPS fifth graders showed a .3 percent improvement, but statewide fifth graders raised their scores by 8.1 percentage points.

It is here that our children showed the biggest drop when compared to other state school jurisdictions. Whereas FCPS fifth graders were tied for first place in 2003, they dropped to 9th this year.

FCPS eighth graders demonstrated a decline of .2 percent in reading ability, compared to a statewide increase of 3.9 percent. And the students, ranked 4th in the state in 2003, are now ranked 7th in the state.

In math, FCPS eighth graders showed a slightly higher improvement than eight graders statewide. Our pupils improved 6.2 percent while across the state there was a 6.1 percent improvement. FCPS ranking in eighth grade math remained at fifth in the state, the same as in 2003.

Our 10th grade students demonstrated a nearly 6 percent increase in reading ability (5.9%), while across Maryland there was a 4.5 percent improvement. And our students were ranked fourth in the state, up from 6th in 2003.

In certain ways this looks very impressive. In nearly every category the percentage of students "making the grade" in each class went up. The sad part is that in too many categories, other counties across the state did better than we did. With the money we are spending on education, we should be doing better.

Of course, FCPS officials will continue to point out that we, as a county, rank very low in per pupil spending. But they will also fail to point out that the debt service we are paying on bonds sold to build schools is not included. Nearly 60 percent of the entire Frederick County budget is given to FCPS when all school related expenses are counted.

In looking over the figures from across Maryland one county stands out. And that is Carroll County. Scores improved in every category. Howard County did the same with the exception of 8th grade math.

But both counties' pupils scored significantly higher than FCPS pupils. And once again, FCPS officials will lay the blame at the feet of the commissioners without mentioning that they have received considerable increased funding every year. There has not been a year in the past 20 in which the school system didn't get an increased allocation from the commissioners.

Is it at all possible that the programs Superintendent Charles Ecker instituted in Howard County had a significant impact on the county's scores on the assessment tests even though he departed some time ago? And perhaps the same fellow can be given some credit in Carroll County where he is now the superintendent in the county of his birth.

All of these figures demonstrate one thing, and that is that more than 25 percent of the students in Frederick County Public Schools cannot read, or do math, at grade level. There is no acceptable excuse for that.

We are searching for a new superintendent of schools for Frederick County. We have had a man in that post for the past eight years whose primary interest does not seem to have been academics.

We have improved teachers' salaries, built some great buildings, and raised our technology, both for the staff and the students. We have done so well in improving our technology that the superintendent received a state award and a new laptop computer after taxpayers forked over $24 million to do so.

As parents and taxpayers we should be insisting on a more definitive criteria for our new superintendent. We should insist that academics be the first priority of whomever is selected. No ifs, ands, or buts. Just plain academics.

In this space, and everywhere else I have written over the years, I have emphasized that improvement in reading skills should be the Number One Priority of FCPS. It hasn't happened as yet, but it might if the Board of Education and the state school superintendent select the right person to fill the vacancy created by Dr. Jack Dale's resignation.

Here's hoping!

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