When state education officials recently targeted the city's Westport School for takeover, they bypassed many others with lower test scores and some that have been on the failing list longer.
The decision has led several Baltimore school officials and education advocates to criticize the process used by the Maryland school board to determine which schools need state intervention.
"They don't really have any criteria that explain why they pick one school over another school," said Cathy Brennan, education director at the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth.
"We've been asking them for years, `What are the criteria that you're using?'" she said. "A lot of people don't get it, and the reason a lot of people don't get it is because it's not based on a policy decision, it's based on politics."
Only 12.4 percent of pupils at Westport, a combined elementary-middle school in southern Baltimore slated to be managed by a private company in the next academic year, met the state's satisfactory mark on the most recent Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exam.
However, 31 schools had a lower composite MSPAP score. Of those, nine have been on the state's failing list longer, and four have had two or more consecutive years of decline.
Westport's composite score - the average for all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders - went up by 3.5 percentage points this year, matching the overall gain citywide.
"In general, I think the MSPAP is a good and valuable tool," said Sam Stringfield, a Baltimore school board member and education researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think in this case, following a formula this way produced an unfortunate result.
"We can't defend where that school is: It's in an awful place," he said. "But is it heading in the right direction?"
State education officials defend their decision, noting that Westport Elementary had the lowest score on the school performance index - a measure of MSPAP scores and attendance rates - of all the city's 85 schools eligible for takeover. The so-called SPI, which is based on a complex formula that differs for elementary, middle and high schools, is used to determine which schools should be put on probation.
But Associate State Superintendent Mark Moody conceded that the next step - determining which schools should be taken over - is more subjective.
Westport is only the fourth school to be taken over in the state. Last year, the state turned over Gilmor, Montebello and Furman L. Templeton elementaries in Baltimore to a for-profit company, Edison Schools.
No `magic formula'
"There isn't a magic formula," said Moody, who heads the state education department's division of planning, results and information management. "There's good and bad with that.
"The bad, of course, is that there's not something I can say to you precisely this is why. The good side of it, however, is that you're not bound by that, so the board has the ability to deliberate [and] to take into account a variety of issues, either mitigating circumstances or others."
The takeover process, said Moody, "allows the human judgment - and I like to think of it as the wisdom of human judgment - to essentially try to mitigate the computation that one would go through if you just said, `Here's the cut-off: It's right at the line here.'"
Chris Doherty, executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which oversees the curriculum at Westport and 16 other city schools, said the state's decision "blind-sided" him and other school staff.
He said he views Westport as a "successful progressing school," and criticized the state's process for not being more open.
"Where's the formula?" Doherty asked. "I want the formula."
Two schools that have been on the failing list longer than Westport are Arnett J. Brown Jr. and Calverton middle schools. Typically, middle schools are more difficult to turn around than elementaries.
The percentage of eighth-graders reading satisfactorily at those two schools, which were both put on probation in 1995, dropped each of the past two years, to less than 4 percent.
Gary L. Thrift, an area superintendent for the city school system, said Westport Middle ranked eighth this year out of 47 middle school programs in overall MSPAP scores. Gains - some significant - were made in all six content areas.
"I was shocked [by the takeover] because I had been so overwhelmed by the improvements at the middle school," said Thrift.
Moody said Westport was targeted for its elementary school scores. In determining whether a school should be taken over, he said, the state board considers the "lowest-performing schools" that are "making no apparent progress.""`Making no apparent progress' is obviously a judgment call," Moody said, "but what it really means is that the board sees no systematic improvement over time."
A call for openness
Some schools with declining MSPAP scores aren't even on the failing list.
At Broad Acres Elementary in Montgomery County, the percentage of pupils scoring satisfactorily has dropped steadily the past three years, from 29.5 in 1997 to 14.7 last year. No school in Montgomery is on probation.
City school board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon said he doesn't fully understand how the state chooses one school over another for takeover.
The state board holds its deliberations behind closed doors.
"It's almost like it's secret," Tildon said. "They play it very close to the vest. It would be good to get a rationale from them as to why they do it. It would be very informative to have a little better grip on the process."