State graduation standards endorsed but on hold 'Performance-based' tests frighten some

November 18, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

A Baltimore woman warned of "witchcraft, drugs and sexual deviation." A Gaithersburg couple called it "social engineering." A Hampstead woman called it "mind control" in the classroom.

Bad notices for something as simple as high school graduation standards.

The letters and calls of outrage from around Maryland led the state Board of Education yesterday to decide it needs to do a better job of explaining what the proposed standards will be -- and, more important, what they won't be: "outcomes-based education."

The 12-member board endorsed yesterday a September task force report that forms the basis for what it calls "performance-based education" tests. Those tests would become graduation requirements for students entering ninth grade in 1996.

But board members said the 31-member task force must provide more specifics on the tests before the board decides whether to adopt the plan.

Some conservatives and religious fundamentalists have attacked Maryland's plan as an example of "outcomes-based education." While the term itself means students are expected to have mastered certain skills and knowledge, opponents have associated the approach with the teaching of "values" and "lifestyles" that may be in conflict with their own.

Members of the Maryland task force and the board have repeatedly said that the state's requirements would focus solely on classroom meat and potatoes: English, math, science, social studies. "The main problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished," said Joan Palmer, a deputy state superintendent and task force chairwoman, quoting George Bernard Shaw. "We obviously didn't make it clear what we're doing. We're not talking about mind control, or behavior modification or social engineering."

The board also heard from local school officials, some of whom said they need more time to prepare for new graduation requirements by training staff and revising curricula. Others were worried about the cost or feared an increase in the dropout rate.

Board members noted yesterday that the format and exact content of the proposed tests remain undetermined.

Members of both the school board and the advisory panel said the tests would be the toughest graduation requirements ever in Maryland -- and among the toughest nationwide -- and that schools would have to revamp instruction to prepare their students.

Some board members warned that such tests could force some students to spend five years in high school or drop out altogether in a state where more than 20 percent of those who start high school already don't finish.

The tests would 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 economics.

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 culminate eight months of work by a 32-member advisory panel of education officials from throughout the state. In late September, the board sought public comments.

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

The 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, perhaps by putting together a portfolio or tape of their work.

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

Students could take the test the first time in either ninth or 10th grade and repeat it until they pass.

About 30 states are developing similar standards for setting and measuring academic achievement.

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