Md. ponders new test to get diploma Series of exams could extend time in high school

September 29, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer Staff writer Gregory P. Kane contributed to this article.

To get a high school diploma, Maryland students would have to pass the toughest battery of tests ever administered statewide under a proposal being considered by the state school board.

State Board of Education members got their first glimpse yesterday of a report that will form the basis for "performance-based education" tests, expected to begin with ninth-graders in 1996.

But some board members warned that such tests likely would force some students who fall behind to spend five years in high school and raise the dropout rate in a state where more than 20 percent of those who start high school don't finish.

Robert C. Embry Jr., board president, said he supported the shift to "individual accountability" but added that progress could be painful for a time.

"What will happen to students is they won't graduate, and that's a very significant sanction," he said. "You're making a major decision in restricting the number of kids who get high school diplomas."

The tests will be designed to measure what students need to know to succeed in jobs and college, and will likely include advanced subjects such as algebra, geometry, even geopolitics and economic systems.

State education officials say the emphasis on performance represents a significant departure from awarding diplomas based largely on classroom "seat time" and memorization of enough facts to pass traditional tests.

The recommendations in yesterday's report culminate eight months of work by a board-appointed 32-member advisory panel of education officials from throughout the state.

The format and exact content of the new tests remain undetermined. But members of both the school board and the advisory panel said the tests will be the toughest graduation requirements ever in Maryland -- and among the toughest nationwide -- and that schools will be forced to revamp instruction to prepare students.

State board members, who decided yesterday to allow 30 days for public comment before voting on the recommendations, praised the panel's work and expressed support for the performance-based tests.

Noting that some high school students graduate lacking even the most basic skills, Mr. Embry and other supporters said such tests could demonstrate how much teaching needs revamping and bring about overdue changes in the classroom.

"It's a much higher level of expectation," said former Frederick County School Superintendent Noel Farmer, a member of the advisory panel. "But we want to give them [students] a choice as opposed to a curriculum that traps them" in dead-end jobs or keeps them out of college.

Array of topics

"Essential content knowledge" tests would measure students' mastery of English, mathematics, science and social studies.

Questions, based on state education department goals, would focus on a wide array of topics and test critical thinking, writing, analysis and the ability to organize, instead of a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blanks approach.

English tests, for example, might require students to analyze writing styles and identify literary devices, while social studies questions might require students to discuss Maryland's role in the world economy, said Lorraine Costella, a panel member who is assistant state superintendent for instruction.

A second set of tests, to begin by 1997, would measure students' ability to apply what they have learned to hypothetical problems, such as putting together a portfolio or tape of their work.

If the recommendations are approved, another committee would set up to devise the tests. Pilot programs could be established by the 1995-1996 school year, Dr. Costella said.

Change curriculum

Joan Palmer, deputy state superintendent who heads the panel, said students could take the test the first time in either ninth or 10th grade and repeat it until they pass.

Local school boards would be charged with helping students who fall short of goals meet the requirements.

"We all know what is tested is what is taught," Dr. Palmer said. "So this will change the curricu- lum."

Like others, she predicted that some students would have to spend an extra year in high school to meet the requirements, adding, "We ought to make it very clear that that's not a stigma."

Board and panel members stressed that elementary and middle schools would have to better prepare students for high school to meet the proposed standards.

'Lost students'

"I think that we all know, in many cases, we've lost students by eighth or ninth or 10th grade," said Christopher E. Grant, a board member. "It's very hard to understand algebra if you can't multiply or you can't add."

Board and panel members carefully avoided calling the tests "outcomes-based education," a buzzword that has become the target of fierce criticism in part because it includes "values" and "lifestyles."

But, like Maryland, about 30 states are developing statewide standards for setting and measuring academic achievement.

In Baltimore City, where many high school students never even take an algebra or geometry course, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey welcomed the recommendations.

"I need more specifics about the proposal, but I think any kind of curriculum can be developed effectively if students are given the right motivations and expectations and we make them feel that they have the ability to be successful," he said. "That applies to any subject, including algebra and geometry."

'Premature'

But Irene Dandridge, co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, called the recommendations "premature."

Calling on the state to spend more money to help students in poorer districts meet new requirements, she said, "The action of the State Board of Education outstrips the ability of the state to fund schools. The state board is very silent when it comes to funding."

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