Md. may no longer technically be No. 1 in education

Maryland's superintendent of schools has no plans to take down dozens of signs in the windows of her agency's headquarters that proclaim Maryland No. 1 in education. Likewise, Gov. Martin O'Malley is unlikely to stop bragging that Maryland is No. 1 in the nation, a point he made again Wednesday on Twitter.

But technically, Maryland cannot claim that distinction anymore. Education Week, a national education newspaper that has given Maryland schools the top mark for the past five years, has stopped ranking the states in its annual Quality Counts report. It was considered the most comprehensive ranking of the nation's schools.

Released Thursday in a more streamlined version, the latest report focuses on just three categories, including student achievement, instead of the usual six. And unfortunately for Maryland's politicians and education officials, in those three categories the state never hits No. 1 in the nation.

So can Maryland continue to stake out the claim of being first in education?

You bet, says state schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery. "Our signs aren't going any place, let me tell you," she said.

"Even though they changed the comparison, we are still at the very top of the highest-performing states in the country," Lowery said, then added with a chuckle, "Other states may be up there with us."

Others say enough already. Among them is Andy Smarick, who has held a number of posts in Maryland and the federal Department of Education and now works as a partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners.

"Maryland continues to do pretty well overall," he said. "But I always grouse when I see Maryland politicians peacocking about the state's results. Maryland, like other states, lags far behind our highest-performing international peers, and our disadvantaged kids are not getting even close to the education they deserve."

The changes in the rankings were made, according to Christopher Swanson, a vice president of education research projects at Education Week, because the newspaper decided that some of its criteria were no longer relevant in measuring education trends that have developed in recent years.

Swanson said Education Week also decided to not rank states this year because the Quality Counts report was held up by the federal government shutdown, which delayed the release of census data.

With rankings complete in only two of three categories by press time for the print version of the report, he said, the newspaper decided not to provide an overall rank for states this year. All three category results have been posted online.

Massachusetts, the state Maryland wrested the top ranking from in 2009, has come in a frustrating second in a similar ranking. Massachusetts General Hospital briefly gained the top spot on the U.S. News and World Report list of the country's best hospitals from Johns Hopkins Hospital for 2012, but Hopkins was back on top in 2013.

This year, the state to the north gets kudos from Education Week for having the country's smartest kids, or at least those who perform best on national tests. Massachusetts has ranked first in student achievement for years now. Maryland comes in second.

But Massachusetts isn't paying that much attention to the latest Education Week report, according to J.C. Considine, the spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

That doesn't stop him from noting that his state's fourth- and eighth-graders have gotten top scores in the nation since 2005 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test used to compare states that is much more difficult than all the individual states' tests.

"To us it is not the ranking, it is the numbers behind the ranking," Considine said, adding that the state began raising standards and emphasizing school accountability two decades ago.

For the record, with the help of a little-used "grading calculator" on the Quality Counts' website, Maryland still ranks first with 87.2 points compared to Massachusett's 83.5 points. That uses some of the old categories from 2012.

Whether the state-by-state rankings start up again next year is still to be determined.

Swanson said he is well aware of how the rankings are touted. "We are based in Maryland. I have seen how the reports are being used by Governor O'Malley. These garner a lot of interest," he said, and work "to elevate the issues and prompt discussion."

O'Malley, the term-limited Democrat who is considering running for president, tweeted about the previous No. 1 ranking on the first day of the General Assembly session, during which lawmakers are expected to debate expanding pre-kindergarten programs.

"We still have a lot of work to do, but the governor is incredibly proud of the work of our great educators, hard-working students and dedicated parents," said Nina Smith, O'Malley's press secretary, when asked about the rankings. "And we congratulate them on another year of progress."

In a nation that loves to rank institutions — hospitals, colleges and sports teams alike — the education rankings have been popular with both politicians and readers.

But there's always been some skepticism about how legitimate it is to rank the state education systems.

While Smarick called the Education Week report "the most comprehensive, longest-standing and most reliable assessment of how states are doing," he said that determining the state with the best public schools has always been "much more art than science" and that deciding how to weigh which factors is subjective. He also believes the newspaper has placed too much emphasis on policy and not enough on actual achievement.

"We've become accustomed to the annual ritual where states that come out looking good embrace and crow about the results, and states that seem to fall short criticize the whole effort," Smarick said.

Lowery doesn't disagree that there is work to be done in Maryland. "We are going through some pretty significant transitions. Through all that our teachers are in the classroom focused on our students," she said.

And she's decided that if Education Week isn't going to give out rankings, then she will retire her jersey with the No. 1 on the back, like sports teams do.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Maryland came in third in student achievement. In fact, it came in second. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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