Half empty, half full

November 17, 1992

For Maryland's schools, the cup is half empty and half full.

The state Department of Education's annual Maryland School Performance Report, made public yesterday, shows steady progress toward meeting goals the state has set. While dramatic progress might be desired, school reform is slow work, and the progress so far deserves praise.

Reading and writing test scores are up, for the first time reaching levels the state has set as "satisfactory." Attendance shows continued slow growth. On the other hand, scores on math and citizenship lag. Urban and minority students continue to perform poorly. And the dropout rate is up -- although this may be a function primarily of better record keeping in Baltimore city.

One other area where the numbers are up -- promotion rate -- may be a mixed blessing. Nearly 99 percent of Maryland students advance from grade to grade each year. This would be wonderful if it meant that all students were performing up to hTC standard, but test results show this isn't the case. Setting promotion-rate standards in the state's report threatens to bring back "social promotion" -- the discredited practice of moving students along whether they have mastered the material or not.

The best way of tracking school performance -- better than attendance or promotion -- is by monitoring student achievement. Scores reported by the state now are on tests that are about on a seventh or eighth grade level. So, although 96 percent of ninth graders pass the reading test, this is not great cause for celebration. (On the other hand, it is dismaying that only 73 percent of ninth graders can pass the basic math exam.)

For two years, the state has been giving another, more challenging, test, but the use of the new tests as a standard have been delayed by problems in developing the test and by the skittishness of some school officials and teacher organizations. The state has to make sure the test is valid and reliable, but it should do this as quickly as possible. Results from a more rigorous test will provide the best measure of how the schools are doing.

The state also needs to proceed with its efforts, now getting under way, to identify low-performing schools and provide them with the resources (money and professional guidance) to do better. A fundamental premise of the state's school improvement program is that "all children have the right to attend a school in which they can learn and progress."

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