Inchworm, Inchworm, Measuring . . .

March 05, 1994|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

The state's effort to identify and fix its worst schools is having some good effects and some unintended consequences.

Baltimore's school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, named a new principal for Douglass High last week -- about a month and a half after Douglass was one of two schools targeted by state education officials for ''reconstitution.''

''Reconstitution'' means local school officials have to prepare an improvement plan. If that plan is not acceptable, state educators can turn the school over to a third party -- a university, a community group, a private firm -- but the state generally seems happy to have local officials fix their own problems.

A new principal may or may not be the answer for Douglass. An improvement plan may or may not be the answer. Operation by a third party may or may not be the answer, either. But at least something is being done at Douglass.

Maybe something would have been done anyway, but the history of schools is that problems are too often allowed to fester. The state's reconstitution process makes it certain that attention will be devoted to the worst schools, and that's an accomplishment in itself.

At Douglass, only 52 percent of 11th-graders have passed the state functional tests, which many students pass before entering high school. (Statewide, 93 percent of 11th-graders passed all four.)

And many of Douglass' lowest-achieving students were gone before their remaining classmates performed so embarrassingly on those 11th-grade tests. Douglass' dropout rate is 38.7 percent a year, compared with a state average of 5.2 percent. At that rate, if 500 students enter the 9th grade at Douglass, less than 200 would be around to take tests in 11th grade. Only 115 will graduate.

The state Board of Education is to be commended for sticking with a process that focuses a spotlight on Douglass and other troubled schools.

That process, however, is not without its rough spots. Maryland has been working for several years to develop new tests which measure ''higher-order skills'' such as critical thinking. But the state began issuing its annual report card on schools before the new tests were developed -- in some ways, they're still being developed -- so the state resorted to other measures -- measures not of achievement but of factors presumed to be related to achievement.

Of these, the worst -- in terms of unintended consequences -- is promotion rate -- the percentage of students in each school promoted each year from one grade to the next. As soon as the state started measuring it, the promotion rate became close to 100 percent in all schools.

Is this really what the state wants: Every fourth grader moved to fifth grade, with no regard to whether they have mastered fourth-grade work? The standard is a silly one, easily manipulated by the schools, and should be dropped.

Another problem standard is attendance. Chronic truants generally don't learn much. But since the state measures achievement directly, why measure attendance? If students in a given school are doing well on difficult tests, does it matter if attendance is 93 percent or 95 percent?

In response to the report card, schools are devoting effort to boosting attendance in ways that probably don't boost learning. Howard County discouraged high school students from taking a few days to visit colleges. If a senior misses two or three days to visit colleges, will this hurt achievement, or might it motivate the student to achieve more to win college admission?

Baltimore County recently decided to close schools on Yom Kippur, not, apparently, out of consideration for Jewish students and teachers but because attendance is low when Jewish students stay home, making county schools look bad on the state report card. But does low attendance on Yom Kippur really have a significant effect on achievement?

Schools seem more comfortable with measuring of things which are supposed to help achievement -- such as attendance -- than with measuring achievement itself. For example, when Robert Embry, president of the state school board, wanted to include in the report card information on students passing the Advanced Placement tests of the College Board, school officials objected.

But if learning is the goal, it's learning that should be assessed. And effort shouldn't be wasted on phony measures.

You can blow hot air on a thermostat and still have a cold room.

M. William Salganik, editor of The Sun's Perspective section, is a former education writer.

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