Md., Va. School Systems Ranked in Nation's Top 5

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Maryland and Virginia public schools are among the top five state school systems in the nation, according to an annual report released yesterday by one of the country's most respected education organizations.

The Quality Counts report, a publication from Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes the trade magazine Education Week, rated the 50 states and the District in six areas of education performance and policy.

The District was ranked 51st in the report, but the lead researcher said that Washington is more comparable to large cities than to states, which have a mix of struggling urban and higher-performing suburban and rural schools.

"D.C. is a combination of a low-performing urban school system and, quite frankly, not the most active policymaking," said Christopher B. Swanson, director of Editorial Projects in Education's research center.

D.C. public schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said she had not seen the report and could not comment on its contents. Maryland and Virginia officials said the researchers' high ranking for their school systems recognized more than a decade of work toward raising test scores and increasing accountability.

"These things will change from year to year, but when you have a state that has done the hard work and heavy lifting, it's going to come off well," said Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education. "It's a good recognition that we're among the top-ranked states."

Quality Counts is widely considered to be the most thorough evaluation of school performance because more than 150 data points are used in the report. The complex formula, which measures student achievement, standards and assessments and teacher pay, among other factors, ranks Maryland as the third-best state school system in the country with a B average. Virginia comes in fifth with a B-minus and the District last with a D-plus.

In a news conference held in advance of the report's release, Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the state's high rank is attributable to a focus on early-childhood education and aligning state curricula with mandatory standardized tests, among other factors. Saying it had been a "long journey" to raise Maryland from 25th in Quality Counts 2006 to third, Grasmick commended her staff for being on the "cutting edge of innovation."

"Maryland is very proud to be among three states, in their words, 'leading the pack,' " she said.

Swanson said he thought it was important to issue grades as a way of summarizing the more than 150 factors his team took into account, but he cautioned educators and parents against reading the letter grades as "the end-all and be-all."

"It's crucial to let states know how they compare, but the story is often more complicated than that one grade," Swanson said. For instance, West Virginia, which ranks one place behind Virginia with a B-minus overall, earned an F in K-12 achievement.

Maryland earned its highest marks in the "chance for success index," which measures whether students hit key benchmarks throughout their academic careers, and in "transitions and alignment," which tracks whether states have adopted progressive educational legislation. Virginia earned an A in "standards, assessments and accountability," which recognizes comprehensive state exams and programs to hold school systems accountable for performance.

Of the top-ranked states, Swanson said, Maryland stood out for strong performances across the board.

"No state is at the top of the nation on everything, but Maryland comes as close as we've seen to a consistent outstanding performer overall," he said.

Grasmick, who has served as superintendent for 16 years and was recently appointed to another four-year term against the wishes of Gov. Martin J. O'Malley (D), noted that the three top-ranked states have longstanding leaders. Grasmick is entrenched in a bitter fight with O'Malley, who has made no secret of his desire to remove her but does not have the power to do so.

"It certainly helps that teachers and staff members do not have to deal with the shifting priorities" of changing superintendents, Grasmick said.

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