July 2, 2011

THERE WAS GOOD news for Prince George’s County in last week’s release of student test scores. Elementary and middle school students showed significant improvement over last year in both reading and math. Even better news is that the gains are no aberration but part of a steady pattern of progress for the state’s second-largest school system. The hard work that has gone into turning around Prince George’s long-troubled schools is clearly paying off.

Results of the 2011 Maryland State Assessments were released Wednesday by state education officials, who trumpeted the continued improvement of Maryland schools. Statewide data showed elementary school reading nearing 90 percent proficiency as well as gains in middle school math. The standout performance, though, goes to the 127,000-student Prince George’s system, which traditionally has trailed much of the state. Test results for the county showed an increase in the number of elementary school students who are proficient in reading from 78.4 percent to 81.9 percent, with a corresponding increase in middle school reading proficiency from 72.9 percent to 74.6 percent. In math, there was a slight jump in elementary student proficiency from 77.5 percent last year to 78.2 percent in 2011, while middle school math scores registered a more impressive jump of 2.7 percentage points, from 55.8 percent proficient to 58.5 proficient.

To be truly appreciated, the gains must be viewed against the backdrop of the past decade. Consider, for example, that in 2003, only 42.9 percent of elementary students were proficient in reading, compared with 81.9 percent in 2011; in middle school, there were 41.9 percent students proficient in reading in 2003, compared with 74.6 percent in 2011. Similar, dramatic gains were seen in students’ mathematics performance. The progress is a credit to reforms started in 2002 when the state — fed up with the embarrassment that the school system had become — replaced the elected school board with an appointed body. Leadership provided by Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and his predecessor, John E. Deasy, brought about important changes in what the schools expected from its students and staff. Curriculum aligned to standards, better use of data and collaborative planning have been among the key improvements, along with implementation of a pay-for-performance program.

“While there is still much more work ahead, I am proud of the progress we are making in our school district,” said Mr. Hite of Wednesday’s announcement. Hopefully, that progress won’t be threatened by recent budget cutbacks that are causing the loss of hundreds of teachers’ jobs and retrenchment in some school programs. Mr. Hite told us that no one is ever happy about having less money to work with, but he is fairly confident that the core systems and programs are in place to continue the upward trajectory of the system and its students.