THE REAL TEST of Maryland school quality lies ahead: In the first year of using new standardized tests, the proof is not so much in the students' actual scores, but in how schools use the seminal data to spark improvement.
School chiefs quickly counseled parents not to worry about the just-released results of the Maryland School Assessment: These scores set a baseline, on which they must build, they remind us.
But for some public school families, the new baseline is reminiscent of the title from a '60s novel: "Been down so long it looks like up to me."
That's because for many Maryland public schools, the challenge will be to figure out how to close the persistent achievement gaps into which the new tests and federal law now shine an uncomfortable light.
One in three schools statewide failed to meet the state standards for proficiency, missing the bar most often because of the low test scores logged this spring by segments of the schools' population that have been talked about, analyzed and mainstreamed, but that somehow have remained persistently marginalized - until now.
It comes as no shock to educators that poor, special education and non-English-speaking students often fail to keep up with their peers - what's new is that Maryland schools can no longer be complacent or dismissive about it.
From here on, schools will be judged by the progress of these subgroups, as well as schoolwide and districtwide scores. Poverty, disability, race, language - none is allowed to be an excuse.
No matter what you think of the No Child Left Behind Act, with its unfunded mandates, its tendency to drown schools in data requiring very careful unspooling to be effective, and its dream deadline of 2014 for 100 percent of students to be achieving at the proficient level, its intent is clear and admirable:
Maryland schools that relied on the scores of their top achievers as cover for the deficiencies of their low achievers are simply going to have to work harder and smarter. They'll be under a microscope now, and to succeed they'll have to refocus their thinking to address individual students and groups with special needs. Parents, who at last will receive their children's scores, should use them to lobby for and support school improvement.
Already, though, educators are questioning whether it's fair or feasible to expect the same rate of learning annually for non-English speakers and certain disabled students as for their mainstream classmates: The lobbying for modifications in the law has already begun.
Meanwhile, the data still hold many mysteries: It's as yet unclear why so many Maryland third-graders around the state scored poorly on the phonics portion of the reading test - especially after so many school leaders professed to be shifting away from word-based methods of teaching reading in favor of decoding the language. State school officials must unravel this and act swiftly if they find that the commitment to phonics has been no more than surface deep.
The new test results offer an unflattering snapshot of school deficiencies and a call to action that should resonate in every home and school, but also in Annapolis, where decisions about school funding will be a priority this winter.