Maryland's public school system was named the best in the nation for the third straight year in an independent report. Virginia stood strong in fourth place in Education Week's annual "Quality Counts" report, while the District dangled at the bottom, above only Nebraska, as the nation stagnated as a whole.

"As Maryland's largest district, we are proud of the significant role our staff and students have played in Maryland's continued high performance," said Dana Tofig, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman. At a county school board meeting Tuesday, outgoing Superintendent Jerry Weast could barely speak five words without announcing the good news.

Maryland ranked third in 2008 before claiming the top spot in 2009 -- and keeping it. It earned an average grade of 87.6, a B+, in 2011, up slightly from 87.5 in 2010.

The rankings
1. Maryland 87.6
2. New York 84.7
3. Massachusetts 826
4. Virginia 81.8
5. Florida 81.5
6. Arkansas 81.4
7. New Jersey 80.7
8. Georgia 80.5
9. Pennsylvania 80.1
10. West Virginia 79.9
U.S. average 76.3
47. Montana 70.4
48. Mississippi 70.0
49 South Dakota 69.2
50. District of Columbia 69.1
51. Nebraska 68.6


Report Card
Maryland Virginia D.C. Nation
Chance for success B+ B C+ C+
K-12 achievement B- C- F D+
Transitions and alignment A B- C- C+
School finance analysis B+ C+ NA C
Standards, assessments, and accountability B+ A C+ B
Teaching profession B B- D- C
Overall grade B+ B- D+ C
Source: Education Week

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick said no "victory flag" would be raised yet as school reform continues. Still, "Recognition of our state's track record of success is gratifying to all of us who work to strengthen our schools," she said.

The District barely passed with a 69.1, or a D+. Virginia earned a B- with a composite score of 81.8. "This is another comparison that I think Virginia residents should take pride in, and it provides a level of confidence that we have sound policies in the commonwealth," Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. "It certainly does highlight some areas where we can do better, and these are areas we already know about, and weaknesses we're already addressing."

The "Quality Counts" report judges states on six indices with titles as bold as "Chance for Success," which spans everything from early childhood to adult outcomes. The other five measure K-12 achievement, school finances, state policies, teaching quality and readiness for each step on the educational ladder.

Virginia's weaknesses included eighth-grade math performance, said Pyle, which the state wants to improve with more rigorous assessments.

Amy Hightower, the report's director, said Maryland would have to improve in the "Standards, Assessments and Accountability" category, which landed the state in 22nd, to turn its B+ rating into an A.

"They're not using extended response items, they're not doing portfolios of student work -- that hurt them a little bit," Hightower said.

Maryland received the top rank for "Transitions and Alignment," which measures, among other things, how well high schools prepare their students for college. The state placed third for "K-12 Achievement" -- which has not been updated since the 2010 report -- behind Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Virginia's top categories were "Chance for Success" and "Standards," ranking ninth in each. The District flirted with Cs and Ds in every category but "K-12 Achievement," where it finished 49th with an F.

Overall, the nation received a C grade, the same as last year.

"Policy is very slow to change. The performance and data measures that we track -- student achievement, financial policies -- are incredibly slow to change," said Hightower, noting an uptick from a C to a C+ in schools' transitioning of students to each education level, which she believed was influenced by the national Race to the Top funding and the increasing adoption of national education standards.

"Both are calling for stronger college-readiness."