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Maryland's public schools No. 1? Depends on who's grading.

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:22 PM

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."

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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