Thirty years ago, the public schools in Prince George’s County, Md., were hailed as symbols of success. Their students ranked in the 70th percentile nationally in reading and math. Prince George’s seemed to be powerful evidence against the idea that a mostly black school district with a high concentration of children from low- to moderate-income families could not thrive. In the ensuing years, achieving success came to be more of a challenge. The schools began to see ever-larger concentrations of poor children, with nearly two-thirds of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
Even so, the numbers continued to look good for a few years. There was a simple reason for that, says Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard University who has studied the county’s school system. In Koretz’ blunt words, the numbers were “juiced.” Test preparation was prioritized over genuine instruction. Children spent much of their time being trained to navigate the ever-more frequent exams and were tipped off on the actual test questions. The school district started test preparation in kindergarten for exams that students wouldn’t take until third grade.
The first danger signal came when Maryland changed its state exams in the 1990s. The district’s scores plummeted. Only Baltimore city, heavily impacted by poverty, scored lower than Prince George’s on student performance in math and reading and in graduation rates. The poor performance in Prince George’s was underscored by the amount of money the district was spending. Just seven of Maryland’s 24 counties spent more per pupil than Prince George’s did.