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Posted at 9:36 PM ET, 10/ 2/2010

Among Md. schools, Montgomery is no outlier

By editors

By John C. Larson

The Post once again waxes rhapsodic about the Montgomery County Public Schools [“Gold star for Montgomery schools,” editorial, Sept. 23]. And many of the district’s accomplishments unquestionably deserve celebration. But the discourse in the media could benefit from a corrective balance in the light of gains seen elsewhere in Maryland.

After my 40-year career in educational research and evaluation, I still maintain, in retirement, a hobbyist’s interest in tracking the annual performance of some 1,400 schools in Maryland. The school-level data from the Maryland Department of Education’s Web site provide a statewide perspective for interpreting recent academic gains.

For example, on Maryland State Assessments (MSA), initiated in 2003, elementary schools attained an average of 90.7 percent of students “proficient” or higher in reading in 2010. That average put Montgomery eighth statewide, as part of a group of nine other districts whose MSA elementary reading averages were crowded within two percentage points of Montgomery’s.

In math, the 2010 average for Montgomery elementary schools was 88.9 percent of students “proficient” or higher. That score was 13th best in the state, making the district part of a cluster of eight others lying within two percentage points of Montgomery. These scores are good, but they simply don’t jibe with The Post’s editorial declaration that MCPS should be “proud of its status as the state’s top-performing school system.”

Well, how about progress over time? The story is the same. The 2010 reading proficiency rate represented a gain of 20 percentage points for Montgomery elementary schools since 2003, and the math proficiency score represented a gain of 16 points. In other words, the average academic performance among Montgomery elementary schools is converging on the laudable goal of 100 percent proficient by 2014. However, the rest of Maryland’s elementary schools achieved an average gain since 2003 of 27 percentage points in reading and 28 percentage points in math.

Thus, elementary schools outside Montgomery County are converging more rapidly toward the 100 percent proficiency goal than are those in Montgomery.

Some have attributed superior performance in Montgomery schools to the superior wealth of its neighborhoods. When I compared schools inside and outside of Montgomery County within the same slices of the poverty-wealth continuum, I found, surprisingly, that the non-Montgomery schools have produced, within most of those slices, greater average proficiency gains since 2003.

Another common theme in the local media is that Montgomery has faced a surge in lower-income families, signaling greater challenges for its schools. But the data show that the increase over the past 10 years in free and reduced-price meals service participation among Montgomery elementary schools averaged only about six percentage points (27.7 percent in 2000, 33.4 percent in 2010). Among other large school districts in the state, the increases were double or triple that amount. For example, the Baltimore County elementary school rate went from about 28.5 percent in 2000 to 45.9 percent in 2010. Yet its MSA proficiency gains since 2003 slightly exceeded Montgomery’s.

Throughout Maryland, the schools that scored lower in 2003 were also the schools that had gained the most by 2010. Montgomery has relatively fewer such schools than do most other districts. On the other hand, the gains in those poorer schools were not a foregone conclusion back in 2003. The initially lower-scoring schools in higher-poverty neighborhoods had a greater job to do, and they should be recognized for the great strides that many of them made.

From this statewide perspective, it is clear that the recent gains in academic performance are not unique to Montgomery County. And why would they be? After all, the state is pumping $2 billion (that is a “b”) more per year into its public schools than it did in 2002. That generous funding is one of the reasons Maryland earned the highest rating among states for two consecutive years in the respected Education Week grading of educational conditions in all states. Perhaps the increased resources and the increased focus on the Maryland voluntary state curriculum and its accompanying MSA exams are producing real dividends in many districts throughout Maryland.

The writer is a former coordinator for applied research for the Department of Shared Accountability in the Montgomery County Public Schools. He retired in 2003 after 25 years of service.

By editors  | October 2, 2010; 9:36 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Maryland, Montgomery County, education  
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John Larson,

Great piece. When I posted similar comments on the Parents Coalition blog a few weeks ago I was the subject of a tart press release (called a Fact Check) from the MCPS office of mis-information saying "it is neither valid nor fair" to compare MCPS to other Maryland counties.

Thank you, a professional education data analyst, for sharing your analysis and suggesting that it is not only FAIR and VALID, but that it is important to compare MCPS to other schools and counties in Maryland.

Further your piece shows that MCPS really has not done very well over the past decade, declining from a top rated Maryland school district to the middle of the pack.

Bob Astrove

Posted by: 7603 | October 3, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

Gee, I though Howard County had the best schools.
BTW these test scores don't tell the whole story but they do assess school performance better than simply accepting the "Challenge" rankings, which does have some value. When only one method of evaluation is used it is flawed. School infrastucture, faculty retention and a host of other critera (that could never be assessed in combination) will determine the best school for your child/ children. This is still a personal choice.

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