Improving Our Schools

Improving Our Schools

Anne Arundel County Public School students are blessed to be able to choose among an unusually-wide variety of educational choices.  In addition to the signature programs offered in each high school, both middle and high school students can apply to magnet schools offering the International Baccalaureate program or schools whose coursework is centered around either the Performing & Visual Arts or Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.  In addition, Glen Burnie High School offers a state-of-the-art BioMedical Allied Health Program and high school students interested in developing technical skills can choose between two Centers for Applied Technology.

Despite these very impressive offerings, data shows that our middle and high schools are experiencing several serious problems -- our students are falling behind those in other top-achieving counties, the achievement gap is increasing in math, and too many students are dropping out of school. 

Our Students Are Falling Behind in Middle and High School

Our students leave elementary school with reading and math abilities that are among the best in the state and, potentially, the country.  But by the time our students finish middle school, they've fallen behind students in Howard and Montgomery Counties in reading and are scoring below the state average in math.   







By the time Anne Arundel County high school students prepare to go to college, their SAT scores average 1,498, identical to the national average.  This is in sharp contrast to Montgomery and Howard Counties, whose students score comparably to ours in elementary school but whose graduates have average SAT scores of 1,648 and 1,653, respectively. 

The Achievement Gap Increases in Middle School

There has been no progress in closing the achievement gap between white and African-American students for the last four years in Anne Arundel County.  In fact, the gap between Caucasian and African-American test scores actually increased last year in math: 






The gap between white and African-American students widens considerably in middle school, particularly in math.  Disturbingly, less than 40% of African-American students had passing scores in 8th grade math this year compared to 76% of white students:






We Lose A Lot of Our Students In High School

One of the simplest ways to look at drop-out rates is to look at the decline in the number of students enrolled in each grade in high school.  While this is not exact because there is some fluctuation in class sizes, it is very concerning that 22.4% of male students and 9.1% of female students are disappearing from our high schools between 9th and 12th grade.  The biggest losses are occurring with Hispanic and African-American boys, where roughly 33.6% and 31.2% of the students, respectively, appear to be dropping out by 12th grade.

Students Disappearing From Classes Between 9th & 12th Grades

  White African-American Hispanic All Students
  Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female Total
9th Grade 1,916 1,738 693 591 307 269 3,161 2,811 5,972
10th Grade 1,757 1,753 616 628 291 275 2,861 2,867 5,728
11th Grade 1,802 1,752 596 616 238 214 2,796 2,747 5,543
12th Grade 1,611 1,715 477 475 204 201 2,453 2,554 5,007
9th Grade vs.
12th Grade
15.9% 1.3% 31.2% 19.6% 33.6% 25.3% 22.4% 9.1% 16.2%

Source: Enrollment Statistics for 2013 on

Proposed Solutions

Something is going wrong in our middle and high schools.  I believe this is not the fault of our hard-working teachers, but of the policies they are required to follow.  For example, there has been a concerted push to place a high percentage of our students in advanced classes in recent years and to require our teachers to provide differentiated instruction to a large classroom of students of widely-varying knowledge levels.   This, combined with the new grading policies allowing students who don’t do well on a test or project to redo it without penalty and requiring the teacher to reteach the subject and regrade the test or project, adds immeasurably to the workload of our teachers while, I believe, hurting student performance.

Rather than continuing with current practices, we should be testing new approaches that are working elsewhere to dramatically improve academic performance.  Additionally, we need to build the first new high school since 1982 to catch up with demand and house innovative programs for students with specific needs. 

Stop Placing Students in Courses Far Beyond Their Abilities

Encouraging students to take challenging classes is clearly appropriate, within reason.  But there's a tipping point where students are in so far over their heads that they can't catch up, and we've apparently reached this point in some of our middle and high school classes.  I've shared with school administrators an analysis that shows that as the percentage of non-advanced middle school students enrolled in advanced math classes increases, the performance of the entire group declines and the percentage of students failing to understand the basic principles increases.

A push to encourage a lot more students to take advanced classes is also occurring in high school.  In the last five years, the number of Advanced Placement (AP) exams taken by AACPS students has increased by 57%.  What's driving this increase is the belief that exposure to advanced-level classes will improve college performance.  Research consistently shows that students who receive a score of 3 or higher on AP exams (on a 5-point scale) will likely do better in college.  However, the impact of participating in an AP class for those who score below a 3 is less clear.  Some studies show that students receiving a score of 1 or 2 are more likely to graduate from college, while others dispute this.

Nationwide, 60% of students who take an AP exam receive a passing score of 3 or above.  Only Broadneck and Severna Park students achieve this level of success, and the percent of students passing the AP exams at most Anne Arundel County high schools is substantially lower than this:

High School % Scoring 3 or Higher
on 2013 AP Exam
Severna Park 66.7%
Broadneck 60.8%
Arundel 55.8%
South River 52.5%
Chesapeake 47.7%
Chesapeake Science Point 46.7%
Southern 45.1%
Old Mill 35.9%
Annapolis 31.5%
Meade 30.8%
Northeast 27.0%
North County 24.5%
Glen Burnie 21.5%
TOTAL 46.7%

By comparison, 82% of all Howard County students taking AP exams in 2012 scored a 3 or better and 56.4% earned a 4 or 5.  The worst-performing school in Howard County had 63.6% of its 2012 AP exam takers scoring at least a 3.

At Meade High School, 45% of all students who took an AP exam in 2013 received the lowest-possible  score of 1 on their exam.  It is hard to believe that such poor performance is helping these students.

Create Middle School Pilot Program Using Principles Proven to Improve Academic Performance

It is time to creatively rethink the policies being following in our middle and high schools.  I am hopeful that the Board of Education will select a Superintendent willing to take a fresh look at our schools and consider policies that are working in other school systems to substantially improve student performance and close the achievement gap.

Personally, I am very intrigued by the success of the Teach Plus program in turning around some of the worst-performing schools in Massachusetts.  Designed by a group of teachers, this innovative program recruits unusually-effective teachers to serve as teacher leaders who receive additional pay in return for providing instructional leadership and intensive training to the other teachers on their team.  I would like to see the school system work with a group of AACPS teachers to design an innovative, multi-year program with the objective of radically-improving academic performance at one of our middle schools. 

As part of this, I would strongly encourage the team designing the pilot program to study how school districts who've recently received a Broad Foundation prize were able to dramatically improve academic performance.   This year's winner, the Houston Independent School District, implemented five tenets identified by the Education Innovation Laborary at Harvard University as key to improving academy performance and closing the achievement gap: 

  • Offering more instructional time, either in terms of longer school days or school years
  • Holding regular (often 4 days per week), small (sometimes one-on-one) tutoring sessions
  • Providing committed principals and teachers with extra training and resources
  • Regularly testing the students and using the results to focus on what each student doesn't understand
  • Implementing a "no excuses" culture in each school that exmpasizes that all children will succeed

Building The High Schools Of The Future

Anne Arundel County has not built a new high school since 1982, despite a population growth during this time of 46%.  We have four high schools with more than 2,000 students each and another four that are close to this level.  The average high school in Anne Arundel County has 1,822 students.  By comparison, Howard County has the same number of high schools as Anne Arundel, and the average high school serves  1,365 students.   

As our schools increase in size, it becomes harder for teachers and school personnel to build the one-on-one relationships that can be so critical to helping struggling students.  As we invest in the new high schools required by our growth, we also need to be looking at innovative options to build schools within schools for students with specific needs.  For example, Anne Arundel had positive results a decade ago assigning a small team of teachers to work with students at great risk of dropping out.  There are undoubtedly other groups of students who would similarly benefit from the development of smaller schools-within-a-school focused on their specific needs.  For example, as the incidence of alcohol and drug addiction increases among our youth, creating a separate wing for students in recovery could be life-saving.

A tremendous amount has been learned in recent years as schools across the nation have experimented with different approaches to improving academic performance.  I ask the Board of Education to select a innovator who will take a data-driven approach to implementing the most promising models for improving our middle and high schools to be our next Superintendent.

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