Schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts has proposed a $2 million plan to boost high school achievement after the county school system's disappointing performance on a new state exam that high school students eventually will have to pass to graduate.

Metts revealed her plan Dec. 12, just days after the State Department of Education released the first-ever results of the Maryland High School Assessment. Only Baltimore posted lower scores on the test, which will be required for graduation starting in 2007.

Metts's plan would begin to test students sooner in some of the skills needed for the assessment tests, requiring county public school students to take benchmark tests that would resemble the assessment exams and would count toward a student's report card. The plan also offers tutoring -- most likely from private providers -- for failing students.

Metts urged the school board to approve her proposal and seek the money from the county government. But the county, like most jurisdictions in Maryland, is facing an increasingly tight budget, and the school system already is asking for extra funds.

School officials predict they will overspend their current $1.1 billion budget by at least $4.5 million, and the system is still trying to recover from a $13.6 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Last month, Metts recommended that the school board ask the county for $4.2 million to help cover the deficit.

Still, Metts told the school board last week that the schools can't wait until next year to start the high school reform. "We now have an emergency situation, in my opinion, at the high school level," Metts said.

The results of the tests, which assess students in English, biology, geometry, government and algebra, are the latest blow to a county school system. Prince George's students have consistently failed to make significant gains on standardized tests, one of the most frequently used measures of academic success.

The highest score the county students logged was in the 34th percentile in English. By contrast, Montgomery County students logged scores in at least the 70th percentile in most subjects.

"We all know what quality is and we all know we don't have it today," board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro) said at a school board committee meeting last week.

Metts's plan also would include an audit of each high school's instructional program. And it would require teachers -- many of them provisionally certified or teaching outside their subject of expertise -- to undergo more in-house training.

"I definitely think that we need to strengthen our high schools in some really fundamental ways, and it looks like a step in the right direction," school board member Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt) said after an initial review of the plan.

But finding the money to do it all could be difficult, school officials acknowledge. Benchmark tests -- proposed to be administered between January and June of next year according to the plan -- would cost $500,000.

"We have to find ways to finance that, and we can't wait a year to get started," Crowley said.

Others wonder why the school system has waited until now to devise a plan for helping high school students.

Much of the reforms of the past three years have been focused on the elementary school level, with programs such as all-day Kindergarten.

"We had a school system that ignored the ticking time bomb of high school assessments," said Bernard Holloway, a former student school board member and a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.

Metts is vowing to make improving high school achievement a priority for the remainder of her tenure. Her contract will expire in the summer, though she has said she would like to seek another four-year contract.

"I will personally lead the effort to visit every high school in this district and talk about a high school improvement plan to focus on the high school assessments," Metts told the school board.

Building Funds Bleak Prince George's school officials this year asked the state for $35.9 million to pay for 22 construction projects in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

What they've been promised so far is much less than they expected: $4.7 million to pay for three projects.

"That's not enough to do anything but maintain the current needs, things that break, the public health needs," said school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).

Departing Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) suggested this summer that the state could contribute $150 million to school construction projects across the state, but other state officials said a more accurate estimate would be $78.5 million. The state's 24 school systems had originally requested a total of $305.9 million for all their projects.

But with the state facing a possible $1.7 billion budget deficit, the Interagency Committee on School Construction, which recommends to the Board of Public Works how funds should be allocated, has recommended only $60 million.

By contrast, last December the committee recommended $110.5 million for school construction for the current fiscal year.

School systems statewide had planned to plead for more money at a Dec. 12 construction committee hearing. But it was canceled, committee officials said, because the state's financial future is so uncertain.

Prince George's school board members said they would continue to fight. Board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel) said he worried how the county would deal with an impending shortage in high school seats without additional help from the state.

"We really need to deal with the high school capacity issue," Duncan said. "It's awfully hard to deal with it when they [the state] aren't dealing with it themselves. They're basically throwing it back to the county."

Prince George's officials will get another chance to state their case Jan. 22, at the Board of Public Works meeting. New Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will make the final funding decisions in the spring.