Maryland fell from its perch as the No. 1 state in public education on Thursday, but the shove came from a change in the ranking criteria, not from any slide in performance.
Education Week, the national newspaper that ranks state education systems based on statistical information, places Maryland third, behind Massachusetts and New Jersey, in the Quality Counts report it released Thursday.
From 2009 through 2013, Maryland held first place in the rankings — a record touted frequently by politicians, business leaders and others looking to attract investment and families to the state. Education Week did not rank states last year.
"We are all very proud that Maryland had that No. 1 distinction," State Superintendent Lillian Lowery said.
Lowery — and Education Week — said the state's ranking fell because the publication dropped three policy-oriented categories in which Maryland had excelled.
The publication focused instead on three other categories: school financing, achievement and the "chance of success" for a child born in each state — based on factors that include preschool enrollment, high school graduation rates and parent education.
"I think what is important to note is that we still have among the best schools in the nation which brings families and businesses to the state," said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most state teachers.
"There are 47 out of 50 states [that] would love to be sitting where we are," Weller said.
The No. 1 ranking has been cited widely by state leaders when arguing that Maryland should be known for something other than "The Wire."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, perhaps the official who has cited the ranking most often, raised it again Wednesday during a meeting of the Board of Public Works in Annapolis. Former Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick put No. 1 signs in the windows of her state office building in downtown Baltimore.
Weller said it helped boost morale of the teaching corps.
Yet O'Malley shrugged off the slip from one to three. He said he was "excited to see Maryland once again ranked as a top state in the nation for education. I'd like to thank all of our students and educators as this ranking would not be possible without their commitment and dedication."
A spokeswoman for Gov.-elect Larry Hogan could not be reached for comment.
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the No. 1 ranking provided a marketing advantage for businesses. But he said it's difficult to track the effects of such rankings, and he doesn't believe there is much difference between first and third.
"The fact that Maryland is still one of the top-ranked education systems in the country is certainly an asset to lay claim to and be proud of," he said.
Education advocates said there might be an advantage to the drop.
Jason Botel, executive director of the education advocacy group MarylandCan, said that when the state was ranked first in the nation, it was easy for some to dismiss concerns about the need to help the lowest-performing kids.
"When you are No. 1 it is very difficult to create a sense of urgency to address the problems that exist," Botel said. "It will be easier to have that conversation."
Maryland remains No. 2 — where it has been for several years — in the category state educators consider the most important: student achievement. The state came in just 0.6 of a point behind Massachusetts, which excelled in math scores on national exams.
Christopher Swanson, a vice president of Education Week, said political leaders shouldn't read too much into the results.
"There is no warning. There's no read flag," he said. "Really, the performance is pretty stable."
If the publication had used the same criteria it used in this year's report, he said, Maryland would have come in third for the past three years.
In addition to the rankings, the state was judged in a separate index on early childhood education. In that ranking, the state comes in 25th and earns grade of C-.
Maryland's standing was hurt because the number of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool programs declined from 2008 to 2013.
Education Week found that children in that age group who are in wealthy families are much more likely to be in preschool than children from low-income families. The publication also noted that Head Start enrollment in Maryland is below the national average.
Lowery said a new $15 million federal grant would help increase preschool enrollment.
"It is not news that our state ... needs to do better," she said. "The good news is that the state has coalesced, realizing the way to improve student achievement is Pre-K."
Lowery, who succeeded Grasmick in 2012, said she took down the signs that celebrated the No. 1 ranking long ago. She said the state continues to have serious achievement gaps that need to be closed.
"We didn't want to claim victory yet," she said.
Ranking education systems
The national publication Education Week released its latest Quality Counts report, a ranking of education systems in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
49. New Mexico