Just as students are about to get report cards for the first marking period, the Maryland State Department of Education has issued its second annual "report card" on the state's schools. This one will make somewhat more of a splash than last year's, since it includes more categories of comparison and, for the first time, includes school-by-school as well as county-by-county results.
Besides showing school-by-school numbers, this year's state report includes a lot more information than last year's, such as the number of students absent more than 20 days in a school year -- a troubling 16.8 percent of the enrollment statewide and a shocking 36.7 percent in Baltimore City.
While the latest report shows more than last year's, there's a lot it doesn't show, but future reports will be even better.
Results of schooling matter most, but the only results shown so far are for the Maryland functional tests -- basically, tests at a junior high level that Maryland students must pass to earn a high school diploma. Passing them is not a sign that education in excellent, but merely that it is barely adequate. Future report cards will include results of new, tougher state tests, which will also provide elementary school results.
Lacking other information that shows what students are learning, the report card shows how often students are showing up (attendance), at what rate they are being promoted from grade to grade and at what rate they are dropping out.
Most of the information is useful, but should be used with caution in evaluating schools. The rate at which students are promoted is easily controlled by the schools -- and, in fact, has shot up since the state started publishing it. It's certainly a sign of trouble if lots of students are flunking, but it's not necessarily good if almost all are being promoted -- without any indication of whether they have mastered the material at their grade level.
And it must be remembered that all standards used are arbitrary. With 94 percent attendance considered "satisfactory" in secondary schools, only three school systems in the state -- Garrett, Washington and Worcester Counties -- meet the standard. But if 92 percent were considered satisfactory, 18 of the 24 school systems would measure up. And while no one can doubt that attendance is better than truancy, it is not clear that school attendance translates directly into achievement; Garrett failed to meet state standards for ninth-grade pass rate on any of the four functional tests, while Washington and Worcester only met two of four.
Despite its limitations, the report card should be viewed as half full, not half empty. It provides more information than before, in a handier form. It directs attention to problems. And the state already has plans to add more useful data.