Maryland education officials are preparing this month to seize control of one or more struggling public schools, making good on years of threats to move against those that haven't improved dismal student test scores.

Under increasing pressure to act, state officials are looking at as many as 10 schools as immediate candidates for takeover. All are in the troubled Baltimore system, though officials said that several Prince George's County schools could be considered next year.

It will be the moment of truth for what has been considered--if only in theory, until now--one of the nation's toughest school reform measures. Under Maryland's tentative takeover plans, each school would be severed from local board control and a private contractor brought in to run it. Principals and teachers would likely, though not necessarily, be fired and replaced. The new staffs would have no ties to the local school system or teachers union, according to Maryland Department of Education officials.

They insist that, despite the ominous sound of a "takeover," these reorganized schools would continue to operate as normal, and for the better.

"This is going to be an opportunity," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "Parents should feel a sense of confidence that we want a quality education for their children. We're going to be discerning of the quality of the teachers and the curriculum. The supervision and oversight are going to be microscopic."

Some skeptics wonder whether the state can do a better job than the local leadership in turning around schools in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and turmoil. Others complain that Maryland waited too long to move in, letting students languish in bad schools while hoping the threat of takeover would be enough to inspire change.

Takeover itself "was not supposed to be needed," said Matthew Joseph, policy analyst for Advocates for Children and Youth. "They're going to have to acknowledge that what they've been doing over the past five or six years has not worked."

In a closed meeting today, state Board of Education officials will consider a proposal from Department of Education staff to move forward with the long-threatened takeovers.

Some advocacy groups and lawmakers have put increasing pressure on state officials to do so, pointing to test scores that have lagged at several schools despite a decade of reform efforts.

A takeover of one or more schools by the Maryland board would mark the first time any state has made a move quite like this. Some states have seized control of entire school systems, and many school systems--including Prince George's County--have instituted major staff shake-ups at individual schools.

Yet no state has ever plucked an individual school from local control. Alabama declared a "takeover" last summer of a Gadsden high school with lagging test performance; however, it mostly involved sending an intervention team to help local officials get the school back on track.

There is little research to show how schools fare under the staff shake-ups known as "reconstitution," said Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a not-for-profit think tank.

And there is a mixed track record for districts that have brought in private managers to run one or more schools. "In some cases, schools have been turned around and are doing well. In other cases, they aren't," said Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Private education services--some for-profit, others not-for-profit--have posted some notable successes in running charter schools across the country. Others haven't fared as well. Baltimore hired Education Alternatives Inc. in the early 1990s to run several schools but dropped the firm three years later because of lackluster student performance and funding disputes.

Maryland officials said they would closely monitor any schools they put under new private leadership. Though the private managers would be signed to three-year contracts, with options to renew, the state's long-term goal under the department's plan is to return each school to local governance within five years.

Maryland first threatened takeovers in 1993, as part of an effort to hold schools and local officials responsible for the success of their students, in the face of concerns that too many were graduating without basic skills to function in the work force.

Since then, nearly 100 schools have been placed on the "reconstitution-eligible" list--most from Baltimore, but also 12 from Prince George's and one from Anne Arundel County.

State officials say they will start reviewing the performance of those Prince George's schools next year for possible takeover. While some have shown little or no improvement in recent years, said Department of Education spokesman Ron Peiffer, they still are not performing as poorly as Baltimore's schools, and thus may not be first choices for takeover next year.

A spokesman for Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's new mayor, said his administration has had no conversations with state education officials about the impending takeover plans and could not comment.

Union officials, though, opposed the plan. Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the takeover plans make a "scapegoat" of teachers.

"It's a fatuous approach," he said. "It's a very silly notion that the difficulty we have in recruiting teachers to work in difficult schools will be overcome by removing legal and contractual protections."

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she plans to research exactly how much the state has tried to help the schools it is now preparing to take over.