The final piece in school reform

July 31, 1995

Maryland has earned a national reputation for school reform. Other states envy its success in putting in place an ambitious set of objectives for shaping schools that can educate students for success in the next century.

Holding schools accountable for measurable progress on statewide tests, requiring demonstrated competence for renewal of teacher certification, revamping the education of teachers -- these are the kinds of initiatives that are essential to good schools but that never come easy. Now the State Board of Education is ready to tackle the next important step on the road to reform -- ensuring that a diploma from a Maryland high school stands for something.

Many questions remain to be answered before the board can implement its plan for a series of 10 tests before high school

students can graduate. Some of those questions will present the kinds of formidable challenges earlier reform efforts encountered. For instance, it's not yet clear exactly what will happen when students fail one of the exams.

But to have teeth, any testing program will have to have consequences. Enforcing those consequences will not always be easy: Would you want to be the school official who explains to parents why Junior, despite passing his regular course work, won't be wearing a cap and gown in June? But accountability -- the watchword of successful school reform -- means nothing unless it carries consequences that are clearly spelled out and effectively enforced.

Education officials have time to resolve these problems, since the first tests will not be administered until 1998, when the class of 2002 (youngsters now preparing to enter sixth grade) begins moving through high school. The state board is wisely seeking to include many interested parties in the review process, seeking comments from the state's 200 high schools, as well as from Maryland's business leaders and officials at colleges and universities.

Maryland's community colleges have long done good work with students who want a college education but need remedial work. That's admirable, but the board is right that it is the job of the

state's high schools to prepare students either for college or for success in the workplace. The proposed tests are one way of ensuring that schools do their job. They also represent the final piece in the state's ambitious reform effort -- an effort that is essential to ensure that Maryland will be a competitive force in the 21st century.

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