Just how tough are the standards on the 1991 state report card?
The easiest they're ever going to be, state officials say.
After years of gearing education toward the minimum, there's a national mandate to make the United States competitive with countries like Japan and Germany by raising educational standards.
Maryland is at the forefront of this push, educational experts say. And that's going to be reflected in the annual state report cards. For the first time next year, the state report card is expected to include results from new tests geared toward the notion of a "world-class" education. The shift will hit local school systems hard, because many are having trouble meeting the much more basic standards included in the 1991 report card released Tuesday. School systems have until 1995 to meet those standards, but at the same time they will be graded on the new and tougher tests.
"There's a lot of pressure in the system in the future to really produce results," said Robert Gabrys, head of the Maryland School Performance Program, which developed the new tests.
The 1991 report card measures school systems the old way -- grading them on minimum skills in math, reading and writing, and attendance and dropout prevention.
The math, reading and writing scores are based on schools' performance on the Maryland Functional Tests, which are graduation requirements but designed to measure eighth-grade skills.
The 1992 report card, due out next November, is expected to set Maryland's sights on world-class performance in math, reading and writing, and eventually science and social studies.
It will do that using the new Maryland State Performance Assessment Program, commonly known as the CRT (criterion-referenced test), which measures how well students are learning what schools want them to learn.
Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education, says Maryland's CRT is one of a handful in the country that is moving toward the goal of measuring skills characterized as "world-class" -- skills that involve complex problem-solving.
"Maryland is in the forefront," said Ms. Mitchell, who has surveyed assessment programs nationally.
Though the CRTs fall short of the maximum that educational experts say students need to compete in the world market, they still measure much more complex skills than the functional tests.
The CRT is to the functional test as being rich is to subsistence level," Dr. Gabrys said. "It would be the difference between being able to balance your checkbook and doing a budget."
As the national effort to establish a clearer definition of "world-class" performance bears fruit, the CRTs will likely become more challenging, Dr. Gabrys said.
That's sobering news for many Maryland school systems. Baltimore only met one standard on the current state report card -- the percentage of students who passed the functional reading test by 11th grade. Students can take the reading test three times a year, starting in ninth grade, and receive remedial help each time they fail.
So, how does a school system that's mastering eighth-grade reading skills by the 11th grade aspire to world-class standards?
It doesn't, according to Baltimore's school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey.
"I don't want to sound too irreverent with regards to the state, but I have to stay focused on trying to turn things around in the city," Dr. Amprey said. "We've got a lot of preparatory work to do."
Addressing problems like chronic absenteeism and a bureaucracy notorious for its sluggishness should lead to immediate improvements in achievement, Dr. Amprey said. But he added: "I am not moving at the pace which they [the state] have put in place."
State officials are sympathetic to Baltimore's plight. When it comes to Baltimore, said state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, it will be important to look at increments of progress. But that doesn't mean the state will be waiving its standards for Baltimore.
"From our perspective, we're not willing to say at this point in time that we are willing to not hold school systems accountable," she said.
Harvard University professor Bruce Fuller, who studies international educational practices, says moving toward more complex skills is essential to developing a skilled, competitive work force.
But states that set such high standards risk further isolating poorer school systems, he said -- unless they help those systems cope with the standards.
"It's the teachers in inner-city areas and poor rural areas that I worry about," he said. "Exams are shifting, but will they have enough information from the state to adjust their teaching practices?"
Dr. Grasmick says they will. The state is already providing training to teachers in teaching techniques necessary for meeting the new standards. She also plans to ask the General Assembly next year for $33 million to provide "challenge grants" to schools needing the most improvement. But the chances of getting that money are slim because of the current budget crisis.
the state can't come up with money to help localities, it may have to push back deadlines for meeting the standards. Dr. Grasmick says that's one option that would have to be considered. Another would be redirecting money now spent in other areas of education, a move that would not be popular with
localities already facing cutbacks.