State education leaders still are digesting reviewer ratings and comments about their losing bid for $175 million in federal grants, but one trend already has them puzzled.

"A couple of judges docked us for low student outcomes," Janice Poda, the state Department of Education's deputy superintendent for administration, said of some reviewer comments.

Poda said she knew that South Carolina had high-poverty schools that were struggling with low test scores, and that was one of the main things the state's proposal addressed.

"So basically," she said, "some of the judges criticized our plan to help schools with low test scores because our state had schools with low test scores."

South Carolina this week lost its bid to bring in $175 million for public education when its Race to the Top application for the federal money came in 14th out of 36 applicants. Only those that ranked in the top 10 were funded.

The Race to the Top program is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus program and is designed to reward states for innovative reforms to improve struggling schools, close the achievement gap and boost graduation rates.

The 10 winning applications were from the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

In an earlier round of competition, two other states, Delaware and Tennessee, landed money. All 12 winners will share $4.35 billion in federal funding for education.

Jim Foster, spokesman for the state Education Department, said everyone involved in completing the application thought it had a good chance of being a winner. "Our collective jaw dropped," when staffers learned South Carolina wasn't among the winners, he said.

Applications were scored on a 500-point scale based on states' programs and their plans to improve teacher effectiveness, data systems, academic standards and low-performing schools.

South Carolina's application earned 431 points, 9.8 points short of Ohio's application, which ranked 10th among the 10 funded.

Five reviewers rated applications in each of six categories.

Individual reviewers' ratings varied in most of the categories on South Carolina's application. Some of the reviewers gave the state's application high ratings while others gave it lower scores. Because the ratings varied widely, state officials can't point to specific factors that kept South Carolina's application from being funded.

Meanwhile, The Hechinger Report, a New York-based education news organization, reported that winning applications hit on key education buzzwords more frequently than losers did.

The words mentioned more often were professional development, data-driven, charter, evaluation, rigor or standards, assessment, accountability and online or e-learning.

Poda said the department didn't make a concerted effort to include particular words in its application. Staff members knew the areas in which the state's schools needed attention, and they submitted an application to address those areas, she said.

So far, she can't think of anything she would have done differently, she said. But "a meeting is scheduled to go over the judges' feedback to see what we can learn."

Department leaders will now consider which proposals from the application can be done without the extra money. They will then move forward with those efforts, Poda said.

Frank Holleman, Democratic candidate for state superintendent for education, said he had wanted the state to win the money. South Carolina needs to continue to compete at the national level to land money for education reform, he said. If he wins in November, he said he would be "aggressive in seeking funds for education outside the state budget."

Mick Zais, his Republican opponent, said there is no additional round of Race to the Top money in the works. "We can now move forward with those things that are within our control," he said. If he wins in November, he plans to streamline the education funding formula and move more money to the classroom.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postandcourier.com.