Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that the Montgomery County school system would be designated a "system in improvement" if it failed to meet the state's academic standards next year. For the county to be targeted, it would have to fail for two years in a row in the same subject area for the same subgroup at all three levels (elementary, middle and high school). This year, the school system failed in the same subgroup at all three levels but in different subject areas, so it would not be at risk of having its status changed no matter what next year's performance turns out to be.

Montgomery, Pr. George's Schools Fall Short in Md.

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Educationally speaking, Montgomery and Prince George's counties are a world apart. But when it comes to hurdling Maryland's ever-rising bar for academic achievement, the two school systems have one thing in common: They tripped up this year.

Both counties failed to meet Maryland's standards for elementary, middle and high school students, according to state data on standardized tests taken in the past school year.

The results amount to a warning for Montgomery, which will be designated a "system in improvement" if it fails again next time. That would be an ugly label for a county that markets itself as having one of the best large school systems in the United States.

In Prince George's, educators were set back two years in their quest to escape the state's "corrective action" watch list.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore school system, long considered the worst in Maryland, was removed from the watch list after showing two consecutive years of "adequate yearly progress," as it is called in education circles. That leaves Prince George's as the state's only system in corrective action, a blow to local leaders who had hoped the county would be able to shake the label this year.

"It's disappointing that we're not where we expected to be," said Prince George's school board member Linda Thornton Thomas (District 4). "I do understand that parents are going to be rather upset. And, of course, with the start of the school year, things have not been so rosy, and we really have to show our parents that we are about business."

Montgomery officials were calmer, perhaps because they won't face sanctions unless they turn in a similar performance next time. The county fell short specifically because its elementary, middle and high school special education students failed to meet benchmarks. Three other categories of middle school student also failed to meet targets.

"Special education continues to be an area we monitor closely," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff for Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "We made progress on the special education front but not enough to make [adequate yearly progress]. We'll continue to focus on that and devise the strategies we need to devise to get where we need to be."

To meet state standards, a certain percentage of a school district's students must pass state reading and math tests. Schools must also meet attendance and graduation benchmarks. The minimum percentage increases each year -- by 2014 all students are supposed to pass the tests -- and so the difficulty of making adequate yearly progress also rises.

If a single category of student fails to meet the targets at a particular level of education -- high school, for instance -- the school system is deemed to have failed at that level. So if high school special education students don't make the grade, the school system fails at the high school level.

An entire school system is deemed to have failed if it falls short at all three levels -- elementary, middle and high school.

Any school system that fails for two consecutive years is considered a system in improvement, and it becomes subject to an escalating series of state-ordered reforms, including replacing staff, reallocating funds and redesigning its educational strategy.

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