Quick, 25,000 Calculators!

May 13, 1991

Over the last 15 years, education reform has been closely harnessed to testing. In the late 1970s, a number of states, including Maryland, adopted minimum competency tests tied to high school graduation. Now, states -- again including Maryland -- are developing more rigorous tests to see what students know at various grade levels.

As a key component of reform, testing triggers skepticism among educators. Using a better thermometer, they say, does nothing to cure the disease. Students and school systems cannot be frightened or embarrassed into performing better, skeptics say; schools need more resources.

But even before the first Maryland student puts pencil to paper -- the tests begin today in grades three, five and eight -- the new program has shown results. Baltimore City schools put out a rush order for 25,000 pocket calculators (recommended, not required, for the test) and assorted other tools: rulers, protractors and dictionaries.

These basic materials have been in short supply in city schools for years. And it seems doubtful that the money to buy them -- $211,352 -- could have been found if city officials were not afraid that test results would make them look bad.

Getting needed supplies into city schools isn't the only benefit of the new program. The tests replace, as a state requirement (although many school systems are continuing to use the old ones), national exams which compare students to a sample group who took the exam when it was written. These national measures have become so ludicrously outdated that all 50 states now report their students are performing above the national norm!

The new tests instead compare students to state-determined "outcomes," such as whether students can "represent situations algebraically." The familiar multiple-choice format for testing has given way to demanding that students attempt to solve complex problems.

Consequently, the tests will require a new scoring scale, which may lead to some initial confusion and disagreements. There are other costs as well, such as lost instructional time. But school superintendents and teacher organizations are off the mark when they say Maryland is not yet ready to move ahead. The State Department of Education has shown in the past that it will make modifications as needed if problems crop up as the program gets started. Maryland is becoming recognized as a leader in the new testing. It is true that a better thermometer will not cure the patient, but this one should help educators and policy-makers to write the right prescription.

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