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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)

An undercurrent in Ehrlich's charter-school message is that, given greater leeway, charters could spur improvement in areas of the state with the worst-performing schools. Except for a relatively small group of charter-school proponents, his plan has failed to gain support.

Maryland's No. 1 ranking comes largely from Education Week's annual "Quality Counts" survey. Using 150 measures, the report tracks grades and state progress in six categories. Maryland received a B in K-12 achievement, school financing and "the teaching profession;" a B+ in standards, assessments and accountability as well as in the category "chance for success."

The state's lone A, and it's only outright top score, was in a sixth bracket that measures efforts to assess and transition youngsters into elementary school, adolescents into middle school and high schoolers into college.

Overall, Maryland's grades averaged out to a B+, slightly better than the B earned by both Massachusetts and New York. It was the second straight year the magazine ranked Maryland as No. 1, but it wasn't a new assessment: All of the student test score data were recycled from the previous year, the magazine said, because the latest data could not be obtained from the U.S. Department of Education prior to publication.

Christopher Swanson, vice president of the Bethesda-based Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, said Maryland's top score reflects the survey's findings of better-than-average test scores, progress in closing achievement gaps, and passage of laws and regulations that Education Week has identified as likely beneficial for improving education.

"Maryland is, perhaps more than any other state, doing really well," Swanson said. "They may not be the top performer if you take a snapshot . . . and they are fairly average in terms of their gaps, but their gaps are closing faster than elsewhere."

Education Week's matrix is not without its critics. Detractors say wealthy states like Maryland get a leg up in the survey for surprising things. In its "chance for success" category, for example, states are ranked in part on family income and whether children have at least one parent with a postsecondary degree.

In a new "math progress index" published this year along with its state rankings, Education Week, in fact, ranked Maryland 50th in one category: the poverty gap in eighth-grade test scores. Maryland's longtime state superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, said she is well aware that there is still room for improvement. But she was comfortable calling Maryland No. 1 despite the last-place finish in eighth-grade math scores.

She pointed out that Maryland has the highest percentage of high school students who take rigorous AP exams and score well enough to receive college credit, and she added that this month Maryland was among nine states and the District to win coveted Race to the Top dollars.

"When we are ranked No. 1, we know that it is No. 1 in a comparative way. All of us, nationally, are grappling with income disparity. Maryland is not unique in that regard." Grasmick emphasized her point: "We're not perfect, but the fact is we are No. 1."

Different tests

Prince George's School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. echoed that point, saying part of the state's top billing rightly reflects advances by students at some of Maryland's traditionally worst-performing schools on college preparatory tests and standardized state tests.

But Hite's latter point goes to another area of contention about the true quality of Maryland schools. Like most other states, there is a wide discrepancy between students' scores on state and national tests. Students in fourth and eighth grades score significantly higher on those conceived of and graded by Maryland than by the U.S. Department of Education.

"There's a gap there, and we haven't been totally honest about that," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), chairman of the state Senate's subcommittee on education. "We say that 97 percent of high school students pass, but that doesn't mean they're college ready or even workplace ready."

Bonnie Legro, senior program officer for education at the Abell Foundation in Baltimore, which focuses on improving education for disadvantaged students, said it's important to keep the quality of Maryland's education in perspective.

"With our state's income level, we should be No. 1," she said. "We might look at any place that we're not No. 1 as being a problem."

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