Top of the class

A report this week that Maryland students made greater gains on national reading and math tests than their peers in nearly every other state is the clearest sign yet that the decade-long effort to increase school funding and make teachers and principals more accountable is working. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, informally known as the Nation's Report Card, is the only standardized exam that allows student performance to be compared across states, and the results clearly show that Maryland's concerted school reform efforts have pushed its students toward the head of the class.

Maryland has long been a leader in the movement toward accountability in education, and nearly a decade ago, the state embarked on a landmark effort to pour billions of dollars into its school systems in an attempt to ensure equity and excellence across its jurisdictions. The result? Not only did Maryland students score above average in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, they also made long-term gains in reading that other states can't match. Their scores put Maryland among the top five states in the nation in fourth-grade reading and math, and among the top eight in eighth-grade reading. Only in eighth-grade math were scores merely average, a fact educators are attributing to a weak Algebra I curriculum.

The figures didn't break down the results by individual school districts, so it's difficult to know which ones contributed most to the state's overall high standing. But it's likely the gains occurred across the state rather than being confined to just a few highest-performing districts. The fact that the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students remained about the same suggests the rates of improvement in Baltimore City and Prince George's County at least matched those of other districts. Had the gap widened, Maryland's ranking nationally almost certainly would have suffered as a result.

That said, educators must continue working to narrow that gap if Maryland is to continue being an educational leader. After all, the real goal here is not to post impressive averages on standardized tests but to provide all Maryland children with the high-quality education the state constitution requires, and to prepare them for an increasingly competitive world.

School superintendents and principals can't slack off pursuing the reforms the state already has in place to make teachers more accountable for students' performance, to track student progress from the earliest grades through college and the work world, and to raise the academic standards embodied in the common core curriculum adopted by Maryland and 40 other states.

The NAEP results are proof of the effectiveness of earlier reforms, and a testament to the leadership of former state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who retired after the last school year. But if the state is to continue growing, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. The Obama administration's Race to the Top competition, which awarded Maryland $250 million in federal dollars to fund its school reform effort, has been a tremendous stimulus to educational innovation in the state. Whoever the state chooses as a permanent replacement for Ms. Grasmick must share her belief that no matter how highly Maryland may rank on national measures of education, the state must continue pushing forward with reforms. Maryland's progress has been impressive, but progress isn't enough.

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