Maryland tops in public schools? Depends on what's being graded.

There's little wrong in Maryland that needs fixing, believes Gov. Martin O'Malley, at Oxon Hill High School.
There's little wrong in Maryland that needs fixing, believes Gov. Martin O'Malley, at Oxon Hill High School. (Bill O'leary)
By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley readily launches into the reasons he says he ought to be reelected: falling crime rates, a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, a brighter future.

Some audiences nod in agreement, others appear unenthused - at least until he mentions schools. O'Malley grins, thrusts his index finger in the air and proclaims: "Maryland is No. 1 in education!" Clapping, hoots and hollers ensue, even in hostile corners of the state.

Educators agree that on the whole, Maryland has some of the best-performing schools in the country, even as closing the achievement gap between traditionally better ones in such areas as Montgomery County and those in poorer areas of Baltimore and Prince George's County remains a major challenge. But how highly they place among top-tier states depends on which expert is asked and what measurement is cited.

Much of the basis for Maryland's No. 1 rank rests in a score of a B+, graded on a curve in a national education magazine. By other measures, including raising test scores in failing schools, it's in the middle of the pack. On a closely watched eighth-grade math score, Maryland ranks last among the 50 states.

With the economy robbing incumbents of applause lines, O'Malley (D) has increasingly focused on schools. "We're at the top of the nation," he said Wednesday at an event at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's.

Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), O'Malley's likely challenger in November, argues that by expanding charter schools he could do better at closing the gap between the state's best-performing schools and its worst.

"Some of the parents of kids in dysfunctional schools would be surprised to hear what O'Malley says about all of the schools being great," Ehrlich said Friday.

But that's a message gaining little traction with voters.

O'Malley's heavy marketing of the state as a top performer underscores a broader theme driving his reelection bid: There's little wrong in Maryland that needs fixing. It also plays to an advantage he holds as the candidate trusted far more on education, according to a Washington Post poll this summer. In that poll, 49 percent said they trusted O'Malley to do a better job on education, compared with 29 percent for Ehrlich.

Behind graduation rates

By one recent study, Maryland high schools aren't producing college-ready students. Nearly half of all Maryland seniors who went on to state colleges required remedial math courses as freshmen. By others: Rosy state graduation rates hide tens of thousands of dropouts; one in 15 Maryland schools is failing; and the disparity in achievement between students from poor homes and affluent ones remains bad and, in some areas, may be getting worse.

Fourth-graders in Baltimore scored lower, on average, on a national reading test last year than did students in the District. And according to Education Week - the same publication that gave Maryland its No. 1 overall ranking - Maryland's poverty gap in a national eighth-grade test last year was the worst of any state.

"The state may have the No. 1 school system in the nation, but Baltimore City and Prince George's County schools remain near the bottom," said former County Council president Sam Dean (D) - a candidate for Prince George's executive this year in a race in which struggling schools have become the main issue. "The discrepancy among districts is absolutely criminal." Touting the No. 1 ranking, Dean said, "is disingenuous when they have not begun to get control over the two systems at the bottom."

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