Test scores released yesterday show that three Baltimore high schools have failed to meet standards for so many years that they have moved to the state's most severe category on a watch list for troubled schools.
They joined nine other city high schools already in the same category. All 12 schools would be forced to restructure if they weren't doing so already.
The city's poor showing on state tests was the latest blow for the beleaguered system. A where a federal judge recently authorized the state to send managers to oversee its special education program.
The city school system's problems are also likely to be political fodder in next year's gubernatorial race if Mayor Martin O'Malley gets the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and faces Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
Several months ago, O'Malley said the school system was turning around. But U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis lambasted the system this month for its chronic failure to provide services to special education students. Last year, O'Malley and Ehrlich sparred over who would bail the system out of its financial crisis.
Options for restructuring normally include appointing an additional administrator, replacing the principal or requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs. But for Baltimore's high schools, the state has accepted a reform plan already in effect to break up big neighborhood schools and convert them into smaller ones.
After the test scores were released yesterday, city school officials found some bright spots in the data, even though the city trailed the state average by a long shot in every measure.
Most significantly, Baltimore's high school graduation rate - the percent of students who earned a high school diploma in four years - increased from 54 percent to 59 percent. School system officials said that jump shows their high school reform efforts are working.
"It really indicates that our students are seeing the goal of a diploma as both reachable and desirable," said Frank DeStefano, the school system's deputy chief academic officer. He added that many more city students earn high school diplomas in five years.
Statewide, the high school graduation rate was 85 percent, slightly higher than the statewide goal of 83 percent.
Of the city's 43 high schools, 30 are on a federally mandated state watch list as a result of geometry test scores released yesterday. Schools are put on the watch list for repeated failures to meet standards in math and English. More schools might be added to the list when the state releases high school English scores this fall.
"We consider all our neighborhood schools in a phase of restructuring," DeStefano said. He said the schools have "very prescriptive" plans to increase academic rigor, make sure that the adults in a school know the students well, and to improve the professional culture for teachers and administrators.
But State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she is worried that some of the new small schools still are failing to meet standards.
"We need to watch that very carefully because poor quality in a large school can still be poor quality in a smaller school," she said. "Students may feel safer, and that's a good thing, but we also have to ensure that the quality of instruction has improved."
She said her department will undertake a careful analysis of the test scores at the small high schools, but "on first blush, we have concern."
City school officials said they expect high school results to improve once a passing score is required for a diploma - just as state officials said they expect statewide results to improve.
Starting with the class of 2009, this year's freshmen, students will have to pass tests in algebra, English, biology and government to graduate. Last school year and in previous years, students have been required only to take those tests, not to pass them. In addition, they have had to take additional tests in geometry and English to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act's testing requirements.
This year, the English tests were combined. Starting next year, the geometry test will be eliminated, and the algebra test will serve both purposes.
In geometry, the city's overall pass rate improved from 48 percent to 51 percent, even as the number of city students who took the test increased by 2,000, according to DeStefano.
The news was worse on the other exams, where the city's pass rates declined: from 36 percent to 29 percent in biology, from 50 percent to 42 percent in government, and from 31 percent to 22 percent in algebra.
Baltimore's high school reform effort is being monitored by a committee that includes representatives from the teachers union, the school system, the state education department, and philanthropic organizations that have funded reforms, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The city has broken up five of its nine comprehensive high schools, with plans under way for the remaining four. Several independently run innovation high schools have also opened, and generally their test scores have been higher.
At Northwestern High School, one of the 12 schools in the restructuring category and one of the large high schools that has yet to be broken up, Principal Sharon Kanter said the new test scores show that "we need to work harder and focus on the development of our teachers."
Kanter said she felt positive about the fact that Northwestern's pass rate in geometry had doubled, from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Sun staff writer William Wan contributed to this article.