Montgomery County's vaunted magnet middle schools have failed to produce consistent gains on state test scores hoped for in the lowest-performing areas of the district.
In 2004, the county used a federal grant to create three magnet schools in less affluent parts of the county: Argyle Middle in Silver Spring for digital design and development, Loiederman in Silver Spring for creative and performing arts, and Parkland in Rockville for aerospace technology. In 2007, the grant ran out and the district took on the $1.2 million cost.
The county's aim was to create "choice" programs to attract students from a wider boundary than neighborhood schools, and give them unique curricula and opportunities. The hope is that such offerings increase kids' engagement, and their academic success.
But the 2010 results of the Maryland State Assessments, or MSAs, were poor enough to bump Loiederman and Argyle into a probationary warning category under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Parkland's scores proved adequate, but still fell below the school district's averages.
About 62 percent of Loiederman's eighth-graders passed the state's math exam in 2010. That's down about 24 percent from when the same bunch of students were sixth-graders in 2008, and passed the exam at a rate of 86 percent.
Parkland eighth-graders saw a decline of about 6 percent since their sixth-grade year, to 72 percent passing overall. Argyle eighth-graders saw a 2 percent decline to 64 percent overall.
Magnet school parents, however, insist that test scores are only one measure -- and an imperfect one.
"An example is my daughter, who loves to dance," said Montgomery's school board Vice President Chris Barclay, whose daughter attended Loiederman. "As much as she enjoyed school and was a good student anyway, dance and theater allowed her to stay engaged in middle school when it's also a struggle socially."
Test scores can't be ignored, and struggling schools need extra academic supports, Barclay said.
"But it's not just math, science and English. It's also about something students may love, that wakes them up in the morning and makes them feel good about who they are."