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We're No. ? [Editorial]

Wednesday's announcement by Education Week magazine that it won't be ranking the nation's state school systems this year means that for the first time since 2009 Maryland won't be able to call itself No.1 in the nation for K-12 education. Don't expect that to deter Maryland politicians from still giving themselves a pat on the back for the stellar reputation of the state's schools, however. It's too tempting an accolade for officeholders to willingly give up, and even if it was simply based on a publication's subjective criteria in the first place.

We would be the last to argue that Maryland's public schools are not, on the whole, deserving of a place in the nation's top tier. But it is also true that the magazine's rankings were to some degree arbitrary, based as they were on half a dozen indicators that focused as much on statewide policy decisions and funding levels as on student outcomes. As a result, the old ranking system had the unfortunate effect of papering over the great gulf between the state's highest- and lowest-performing school districts or the yawning achievement gap dividing children from the state's wealthiest and poorest families.

Moreover, pride in Maryland's high national ranking distracted attention from the uncomfortable truth that despite being No. 1 in America, Maryland student achievement levels were at best only middling when compared to their toughest competitors abroad. In math and science, students from a dozen Asian and European nations all place higher on international achievement exams, and in a knowledge-based global economy that gives countries with a highly educated work force the competitive edge, just being No. 1 in the America isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be.

Education Week decided not to rank the nation's school systems this year for a variety of reasons, including the federal government shutdown last year that delayed the release of Census data on which its reports are partially based. But the most significant factor in that decision for Maryland was that the magazine had begun to question the relevance of the some of the criteria it previously used to develop the ranking. Those measures put a heavier emphasis on the input side of the ledger — staffing, policies, curriculum, etc. — while the new report looks more at outputs such as growth in student achievement, test scores and college and work readiness.

By those measures Massachusetts, not Maryland, had the smartest kids in the country, at least as measured by test scores. Massachusetts also came in first in the category of growth in student achievement; there Maryland came in second. And Massachusetts students have registered the country's highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2005. The NAEP is far more rigorous than any state assessments and a much better indicator of how school systems stack up nationally in terms of language and math instruction.

There's always been skepticism about how legitimate it is to rank state schools systems, and the process is as much an art as it is a science. Critics of the Education Week rankings have argued that its method puts too much emphasis on state policies and not enough on student achievement, and that effect is amplified in a state like Maryland, where large numbers of poor and minority students are clustered in underperforming school systems that don't adequately prepare them for college or the work world.

Education Week hasn't decided whether to resume ranking K-12 school systems next year, but in the meantime Maryland should view the hiatus as an opportunity to work on some of the serious issues that the state faces, such as the achievement gap along racial and class lines and the continuing failure to improve the academic performance of its special education students. To be fair, state education officials have never pretended these problems didn't exist, but the eagerness (particularly by Gov. Martin O'Malley and other political leaders) to trumpet the No. 1 ranking certainly distracted focus from the need to address them. If Maryland can improve educational outcomes for all its students, that would really give the politicians something to brag about.

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