It all boils down to one word: "accountability."
After years of taxpayer criticism about the quality of education, the state's public schools are being weighed on the scales of performance -- and coming up short.
Throughout the state yesterday, local school administrators moved to put the best face on results from the second annual state school "report card."
The report, which grew out of a gubernatorial task force on education several years ago, is part of an ambitious, multiyear effort by the state to hold local districts accountable for the quality of education.
This year's report card measures how well the districts did in the 1990-91 school year in meeting 13 performance standards, including those for attendance and the dropout rate and how well students performed on state-mandated reading, writing, mathematics and citizenship tests.
And, for the first time, the report includes data on each of the 1,237 elementary and secondary schools in the state.
According to this year's report card, local school systems on average met five of the 13 performance standards, up from two out of eight standards on last year's report card.
State education officials stress that schools are not expected to meet all of the standards early in the program, so long as they improve from year to year.
But all school districts are expected to score at least "satisfactory" on all categories in the current report card by 1996, or suffer some unspecified sanction set by the state Department of Education.
Options include such radical measures as a state takeover of a substandard school district, or contracting out operations to a university or a private business.
In Baltimore, which failed to meet all but one of the 13 standards, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey vowed to push for improvements, putting the spotlight on innovative schools.
The report "reveals some deficiencies in our instructional program," he acknowledged, but also offers a "blueprint for reshaping and revitalizing education in Baltimore."
In contrast, administrators in Howard and Carroll counties were happy to note that they made the grade in all but one or two of the areas ranked by the state.
According to the report, schools across the state posted marks of "satisfactory" or "excellent" on elementary school promotion, elementary school attendance and on state-mandated reading and writing tests.
On average, they also met the state's standard for the percentage of students who passed all four state-mandated tests.
But they failed to measure up in middle school and high school attendance, the high school dropout rate, the number of 11th-graders passing state-mandated mathematics and citizenship tests, and the number of students who took the functional tests for the first time.
And state officials stress that those tests are merely minimum competency tests that students should be able to pass after the eighth grade.
While performance has improved statewide since last year, "we would hope that we would see much greater acceleration of progress over the next three years," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
She also voiced alarm at the relatively poor performance of black males in a number of categories.
But the superintendent stressed that "a report card has several marking periods. . . . The total goal is not achieved until we've completed all the marking periods."
Baltimore, with nearly 109,000 students, clearly faces the hardest task. The city scored worse than any other state jurisdiction, meeting the state standards only in the number of 11th-graders who passed the state-mandated reading test.
Though the city's dropout rate fell to 10.8 percent from 14.6 percent the year before, that is far short of the 3 percent "satisfactory" and 1.25 percent "excellent" rates set by the state.
Meanwhile, absenteeism is high at many city middle schools and high schools, with some reporting that three-quarters of their students missed more than a month of school last year.
Amprey, who has been on the job since August, said the results reflect the serious economic and social problems that face the city's school system.
The city ranks near the bottom statewide in per-pupil spending, at $4,616 a student, while 62 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.
But Amprey said the school system cannot use those problems as an excuse. He vowed to tackle poor performance with strong leadership from principals and the help of parents, business and the community.
Baltimore County, meanwhile, passed in 10 of the 13 categories, which is "basically good news," said Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel.
The county failed to meet state standards in writing, citizenship and attendance. Dubel said the writing test was administered during a week disrupted by snow and the flu.
Dubel also said that the county schools may have a difficult time improving on scores as the state forces budget cuts.