Tests: Too Much, Too Soon

October 12, 1993

Over the years, this editorial page has consistently and enthusiastically supported higher standards in schools. We have supported tests to see if students are meeting the standards. We have supported efforts by the state to hold schools accountable for student achievement as measured by the tests. We continued to stand by the state's efforts when early versions of the test contained embarrassing glitches.

Until now.

A task force, with the backing of State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, has proposed a series of new and tougher tests as a high school graduation requirement. The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new tests in November. This is an idea whose time hasn't yet arrived.

Once the state has completed its process -- now well under way -- of making sure every school offers adequate instruction and every school district has adequate resources, an individual test would be fine. But it is wrong to hold students accountable for high-level achievement before the state finishes the job of making sure every school offers the students what they need to learn.

At the heart of the new testing plan is an appealing idea: that students be judged on what they know and what they can do, not just on how long they sit in a classroom. Thus, instead of requiring a year of geometry for graduation, the state would see if the student could find the volume of a cone. Instead of requiring a year of history, the state would insist the student discuss the causes of the Civil War.

State education officials are understandably anxious to get on with school reform. But before beginning the next reform, they need the patience to see through the reforms they've already begun.

Maryland has had minimum competency tests as a high school graduation requirement since the 1970s. The state has been giving more rigorous tests at grades 3, 5 and 8. Recently, the State Board of Education approved commendably high standards and a process for improving schools that fail to meet standards.

But the improvement process is in its earliest stages; certainly, no one can yet say the under-performing schools have been brought up to snuff. Also in early stages is a badly needed look at how the state pays for education.

While waiting for these two initiatives to bear fruit, it would be fine for the state to begin to develop new high school tests, perhaps even to use them in the award of merit diplomas (now offered to students who complete more classroom hours, in more difficult courses, than the minimum).

But a series of tough tests as a requirement for high school graduation? It's not time yet.

5/8

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