Pointing to years of progress on standardized tests, Mayor Martin O'Malley praised Baltimore's students and teachers Tuesday and proudly proclaimed: "This is no less than one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America."
But education experts say Baltimore's achievements are not unique because many urban school systems have made academic gains in recent years. And yesterday, members of the mayor's staff said they were still looking for data to back up his assertion.
O'Malley made his sweeping statement after the release of Maryland School Assessment results that showed pupils in the state's most troubled system continued to improve in math and reading this year.
The mayor's praise was music to the ears of school administrators, who have faced fiscal problems, violence in schools and a teacher shortage. And education is an important issue for O'Malley because he is expected to make a gubernatorial bid.
Several recent studies show urban school districts across the country have made steady gains in math and reading.
"Baltimore's not by itself," said Henry Duvall, a spokesman for the Council of Great City Schools, an advocacy group for urban districts. "Baltimore just fits right in with the urban school trend."
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the mayor's comments were a challenge to his staff and school leaders to find evidence that something special is happening in Baltimore's schools.
"The main point [the mayor is] trying to make is that it's a remarkable turnaround point for Baltimore City," he said.
O'Malley did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article. At a news conference yesterday, the mayor took his declaration down a notch: "We are researching ... to see if we are not in the middle of one of the biggest turnaround stories of any major school system in any major city in America."
O'Malley's praise of the city's schools comes at time when he has increased his influence over the system after bailing it out of of a cash-flow crisis with a $42 million loan. The city has exerted control over several areas of school operations, including finances, facilities and school police.
The mayor's office sought yesterday to show that Baltimore has been more successful than some urban districts, by providing data that ranked the city's elementary pupils against children in nine other urban school systems. Baltimore ranked third in reading, behind Newark, N.J., and Detroit, and fourth in math, behind New York, Chicago and Detroit, according to the data.
But education experts said it is misleading to compare urban school districts to one another because states use different standardized tests, some more challenging than others.
"The only way that urban districts can be thoroughly compared is if they take the same test," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University education researcher.
Abbruzzese said the mayor believed it was important to compare the city not only to other systems in Maryland, many of which are wealthier and are not serving disadvantaged populations.
"I think the mayor would argue it's still important to have some indication of how our students compare to other urban areas," he said.
Ravitch said the only meaningful way of comparing urban districts is through a project by the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education involving 10 urban districts that volunteered to administer a national standardized test to their pupils.
"I would love to see Baltimore participating in that, because that's the only way to have a sense of whether you're going forward," Ravitch said.
City and school leaders say they have been moving forward. Four years ago, for the first time in recent years, more than half of Baltimore's first-graders scored above the national median on a reading and math test known as the TerraNova.
In the years since, second-graders also scored above the national median on the Terra- Nova. And pupils in grades three and four demonstrated a passing rate of more that 50 percent on the Maryland School Assessment, according to results released Tuesday.
"If you project out what that means if we keep adding a grade every year, we may be the first urban school system this side of World War II to be able to claim that a majority of all our elementary-grade children score proficient in reading and math," O'Malley said at his news conference. "And that would be a huge, huge story."
Duvall, of the Council of Great City Schools, praised Baltimore's achievements but said other urban districts have made greater strides.
Said Duvall: "We have three big-city school districts that are actually doing better than their states ... Anchorage [Alaska], Albuquerque [New Mexico] and San Francisco."
Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.