The Maryland Department of Education gave the state's 24 school systems their first report cards yesterday, and none passed all the tests.
The failing grades had been expected ever since the State Board of Education approved tough performance standards last spring as a first step toward wholesale improvements in the way Maryland educates its children.
Still, the assessment offered a sobering look at the status quo: Baltimore failed in all eight categories; Anne Arundel passed only two; and Baltimore County passed just four.
At the other end of the scale, Howard County passed seven of the eight categories and Frederick and Montgomery passed six. (Montgomery, however, only failed one; its students had not taken the citizenship test used on the report cards.)
School officials were determined to be upbeat about the results.
"This is a new way of doing business in Maryland," said Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent of schools. "On a statewide basis, we don't meet very many standards, but this is a benchmark that shows where we are so we can develop a road map to improvement."
The standards were set after the Governor's Commission on School Performance, headed by Walter Sondheim Jr., issued a study last year that became known as the Sondheim report. It exhorted the state to publish data on numerous aspects of school performance, based on complaints by the governor and legislature that school systems constantly ask for money without offering evidence that they are using it wisely.
Mr. Sondheim said school systems shouldn't be trying to look for excuses as they address the report. They should look at other schools with the same problems, he said, and see if they have any answers.
"I think it's not only possible but absolutely essential that children in Baltimore have the opportunity to achieve these standards," Mr. Sondheim said. "Baltimore City can do better. If they can't, we oughtn't to have a school system."
Richard C. Hunter, the Baltimore superintendent, said yesterday that the city has been improving attendance. "The high standards set by the state will certainly be a challenge for an urban district such as ours," he said in a statement.
Richard Bavaria, a spokesman for the Baltimore County school system, said the county was close to the next step up in most cases. "I don't see anything that will cause great concern," he said.
Viewed statewide, Maryland schools passed in two of the eight categories, which measured school systems on percentages of its ninth-graders who passed the minimum competency tests in reading, mathematics, writing and citizenship that the state requires for graduation. Other categories included attendance rates for elementary and high schools, the yearly dropout rate and the promotion rate.
Last spring, the State Board of Education set performance standards in each of the eight categories and decided individual schools must show progress in reaching those standards by 1995.
To win an excellent grade, for example, 97 percent of a system's ninth-graders would have to pass the reading test. A satisfactory grade would require a 95 percent passing rate.
Mr. Sondheim said the averages hide the fact that there is a wide range of performance within school systems.
Next year, Dr. Shilling plans to publish reports on each of the state's 1,201 schools, prodding them to develop improvement plans aimed at reaching the standards by 1995.
Schools that don't show progress may be subject to a variety of sanctions, including being closed and reopened with an entirely new staff.
The report cards were distributed at a news conference attended by what looked like a squad of cheerleaders: State education employees, many of them dressed in red and black (the same colors used on the report cards), listened in, wearing black buttons bearing the motto of the school improvement campaign: Schools for Success.
"With this statement we officially begin to discover new standards in education," Dr. Shilling said. "This is a historic day for Maryland.