At Viers Mill Elementary in Montgomery County, a campus where 35 percent of students lack English fluency, the proficiency rate in third-grade reading on the 2005 Maryland School Assessment rose from 52 percent in 2003 to 90 percent. At Clarksville Elementary School in Howard, the share of students rated proficient dipped no lower than 93 percent at any grade level tested in either reading or math. At Folger McKinsey Elementary in Anne Arundel, proficiency rates reached 95 percent or better across the board on the statewide test. For their accomplishments, all three schools this month earned the status of Blue Ribbon School, the highest honor the U.S. Education Department can bestow upon a school.

In this era of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative and yearly progress goals, the Blue Ribbon program has taken on new meaning. Formerly tailored to recognize overall school excellence, the Blue Ribbon award of today is all about academic achievement.

Before an overhaul of the program in 2002, schools nominated themselves for Blue Ribbon awards. The focus was less on test scores -- schools had to rate at the 60th percentile or better on a national scale and show improvement -- and more on overall school climate, as measured in book-length applications submitted to the federal government after screening by the state.

The overhaul followed a 2000 study by the Brookings Institution that concluded the Blue Ribbon too seldom recognized academic achievement. Brookings reviewed 70 Blue Ribbon schools in several states and found that just 19 had scored in the top 10 percent among demographically similar schools in their states.

Federal education officials changed the program to make it the responsibility of state education departments to nominate schools, a more objective process, and they set new criteria for the award.

A school now must rate in the top 10 percent in its state in both reading and math, or the campus must perform at the 60th percentile or better in its state and show dramatic improvement over time with a population of economically disadvantaged students.

"It's not subjective; it's data driven. And that's good," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "We used to have a lot of schools, they were reluctant to even apply, because they thought the process was too subjective."

Blue Ribbon awards went to 295 schools nationwide, including seven in Maryland and nine in Virginia. The Virginia list includes Leesburg Elementary School in Loudoun County and Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Fairfax County.

Viers Mill, in Silver Spring, provides as good an example as any of the goals embodied in No Child Left Behind, said Stephen O'Brien, director of recognition programs at the federal Education Department.

Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast evidently shares that view; James J. Virga Jr., the Viers Mill principal, was promoted this year to a new position as a mentor to other principals.

Thirty-two languages are spoken at Viers Mill, and 62 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals by dint of low family income.

To recount how Virga, the principal for eight years, raised scores across the board at Viers Mill would probably fill a book. But by 2004, he and his staff had virtually eliminated the performance gaps among racial groups at the school, with proficiency rates for whites (73 percent), blacks (70 percent) and Hispanics (74 percent) falling within a few points of each other on the MSA.

The gains were not limited to the Maryland School Assessment. On the California Test of Basic Skills, a nationally normed test unrelated to the MSA, Viers Mill students rose from the 40th percentile in 2001 to the 64th percentile in 2004 in second-grade reading, and from the 52nd to the 79th percentile in math.

"It's a lot of people working very hard together and just believing that the kids could do it," Virga said.

One goal of the Blue Ribbon program is to hold up models of excellence for other schools to follow. "And this school is certainly a model," O'Brien said.

The other two honorees in suburban Maryland, Clarksville and Folger McKinsey, are top-rated suburban schools serving comparatively affluent populations -- and outperforming other affluent schools in their counties.

Folger McKinsey, in Severna Park, is, by all accounts, a happy place. Teacher turnover was zero in the 2003-04 academic year, whose data formed the basis for the application. Third-grade test scores ranked highest among all 77 elementary schools in Anne Arundel.

Principal Alison Lee says she keeps the focus on having fun, so as not to stress out over tests. "I'm big on parties. I'm big on assemblies, and taking a break, and taking a walk," said Lee, entering her fourth year as principal.

She brought her methods to Folger from Jones Elementary, also in Severna Park. Jones was the last Anne Arundel campus to earn a Blue Ribbon award, in 2003.

At Clarksville Elementary, a school consistently in the top tier of performance in a keenly competitive county, teacher teams meet regularly with Principal Brad Herling to have "data conversations."

They talk about scores, looking for specific strengths and weaknesses across a range of academic tasks and targeting students at risk of falling behind. On the 2005 statewide exam, 62 percent of students rated advanced in fifth-grade reading, more than twice the Maryland average.