With the exception of Maryland's two wealthiest school districts, the state's major school systems fall short when it comes to producing top students.
Baltimore is the biggest loser, home to only two of this year's crop of 241 National Merit semifinalists, the top-scoring 11th-graders in the state on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test who are rewarded with scholarships, prestige and recruitment offers from colleges all over the country.
With about 10 percent of the state's 11th-graders, the city has produced for the past three years between 1 percent and 2 percent of the state's semifinalists -- the same as rural counties with junior classes a quarter the size of Baltimore's.
"That's outrageous," said Joyce A. Kroeller, executive director of Collegebound Foundation, which works in city schools to improve students' chances of going to college.
"The kids deserve better from this system."
Montgomery County, by contrast, was home to 58 percent of the state's semifinalists this year and has accounted for more than 50 percent in each of the past three years.
Howard County had the next highest number. With only 4.6 percent of the state's 11th-graders, it has produced 10 percent of the semifinalists for each of the past three years.
"We're very fortunate to be in an area where our kids come to us ready to learn," said Howard County school spokeswoman Patti Caplan.
Prince George's County, the state's other largely urban system, has 15.5 percent of the state's 11th-graders but has produced just over 7 percent of the semifinalists for the past three years. This year it had 18 National Merit semifinalists.
And the larger suburban districts -- Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties -- have disproportionately low numbers of semifinalists, who were announced last month.
In Baltimore County, the number of National Merit semifinalists hit a five-year low this year -- there were only 11. Last year there were 30. And over three years, the county, which has about 12 percent of the state's 11th-graders, has averaged about 8 percent of the state's semifinalists.
"We're concerned with the drop," said George T. Gabriel, director of research and evaluation for Baltimore County schools. He attributed it to the emphasis on preparing for new state tests that began this year and the growing urbanization of the county.
The discrepancies between school systems are largely a function of what students bring to school with them, educators argue -- differences that critics say are aggravated by bias in the PSAT.
But Maryland educators concede that the scholarship program also reflects how school systems are doing at cultivating their brightest students.
"The question becomes, are you taking your very brightest students and preparing them in a way that they can compare with other bright students?" said Dennis G. Younger, executive director of curriculum in Anne Arundel County, home to 10.5 percent of the state's 11th-graders but only 5 percent to 6 percent of the semifinalists for the past three years.
"It's a good question to ask our selves."
The difference in performance between Prince George's County and Baltimore illustrates some of the variables that allow one urban school system to outpace another.
Several years ago, Prince George's County started a campaign to improve achievement and do better on tests -- by exposing more students to high-level courses early on and teaching test-taking skills. Baltimore as a system is just beginning to emphasize similar programs -- such as expanding the number of students who take algebra I, a key element for preparing for the SAT and PSAT.
"With the low scores, we're beginning to recognize that we're shortchanging our students by not having higher expectations," said Gary Thrift, director of the city's high schools.
"It says a lot of things to us," Mr. Thrift said of the small number of semifinalists. "No. 1 and probably foremost is our responsibility to do a better job, specifically at the middle school level and in grades nine and 10 in terms of math and language-arts preparation."
The 15,000 semifinalists in the United States are selected from 11th-graders who take the PSAT -- they represent the top 0.5 percent of students in each state.
Each state is allotted a share of semifinalists based on its share of the nation's graduating class, and districts within a state compete for those slots.
Becoming a semifinalist is more difficult in Maryland than in most other states because there are larger numbers of high-scoring students. Maryland has a qualifying score of 204, as do Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Jersey. A perfect score is 240.
Semifinalists will go on to compete for $26 million in scholarships this year. Even those who do not win are often sought out by colleges.