After all the arcane educational verbiage about "learning outcomes," "scale scores," and "response ratings," the bottom line in the scores recorded on Maryland's new student-competency tests is this: 30 to 35 percent of Maryland school children are performing at barely adequate levels and 40 percent are performing below adequate levels. About a quarter are doing fairly well, but only about 5 percent are performing at truly high levels.
The State Department of Education is to be commended for setting rigorous standards, for developing a new set of tests that document whether students are meeting those standards, for making the results public and for setting about to improve instruction.
However, the department bent too far to avoid bashing local schools with the results of the new exams. It produced a report that will leave the public befuddled.
At one point, the state education department identified the different performance levels as "advanced," "basic," "minimal" and "below minimal." Then, it decided not to use such labels for the public, instead giving parents and taxpayers such purposely dense explanations as, "Proficiency levels were. . . selected to be far enough apart to ensure that performance at each level represented qualitatively different proficiency and so that higher levels on scoring rubrics, rules, and keys correspond to higher proficiency levels."
That is an outrageous display of educational arrogance. The public deserves a direct and simple answer to the question, "How did our kids do on these tests?" Otherwise, the tests serve no purpose.
The department is right to remember that local schools must be its partners, not its adversaries, in school improvement efforts. Local officials are understandably concerned that it takes time to meet new standards -- standards which, in any case, were meant as goals for the year 2000. At this point, a state report excoriating the schools for poor performance would be counterproductive. But no one is well served by an intentionally fuzzed-up report designed to frustrate the public.
Despite a muddier-than-necessary report, the overall process is a good one. Maryland has placed itself among the national leaders in developing tests which measure not just basic competency but complex skills.
The next step is for the state to set performance standards on the tests -- and release the test results in plain, understandable English. Once that happens, Marylanders will have a clearer idea of what proportion of the state's students are performing at acceptable levels; school officials will be able to see what's working and what's not, and an informed community will be in a position to join the necessary effort to make this state's schools better.