Schools toughen diploma standards Some Maryland tests would require mastery of college-prep work

February 01, 1996|By Marego Athans and John Rivera | Marego Athans and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Maryland's high school students could face what educators call some of the toughest graduation requirements in the nation by the turn of the century under a plan approved yesterday by the State Board of Education.

After a two-year study on ways to give the high school diploma more value, the board voted unanimously to develop 10 final exams in five subject areas that all 200,000 high school students would need to pass to get a diploma.

In at least some subject areas, the tests would demand mastery of college-preparatory work, officials said.

"This will give people who employ Maryland graduates the assurance that a Maryland diploma means something," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the state board and head of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group working for school improvement.

But the new tests have brought concerns from teachers unions, which argue that the tests are worthless without better teacher training, and from groups representing minority students and children.

Susan Leviton, founder of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, said the tests may inspire fresh confidence in public schools. But, she said, "I'm concerned about what happens to the students who are not the brightest and go to school and are never able to pass the test, and that are not able to get a diploma."

Only a handful of states have such final exams, although more states are considering the move. The guidelines being developed in Maryland could be the most rigorous established so far in the country, Mr. Cross said.

The move is part of an effort led by the state superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, to make schools more accountable for student performance. Among changes in place are new, tougher tests for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

But standards in Maryland's high schools continue to lag behind those of school systems in much of the nation. Under the current high school tests, called the Maryland Functional Tests, students who pass prove only that they can perform junior high-level work, said Ronald A. Peiffer, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.

The new tests, which will be developed by a testing company over the next four years, are scheduled to go into effect during the 2000-2001 school year, when the class of 2004 will be in the ninth grade.

The tests -- expected to be a mix of short answer, multiple choice and essay questions -- will be given at the end of each required course in math, science, English, social studies and job-related skills, such as communications and teamwork. Students who fail will have the opportunity to retake each test repeatedly.

Educators consider that feature a "parachute" for low achievers, a way to avoid the specter of masses of students repeating grades and a drastic drop in the graduation rate. Officials hope that the new tests will force standards up for all students, but they acknowledge that schools will need to spend more money in remedial education for students who fail. As they do now, students with severe learning disabilities will be able to graduate with a special diploma.

Still to be determined are guidelines on how many times students may take a test, what constitutes a passing grade, whether local school districts may design their own tests, as well as what sort of course work to emphasize.

The new program is expected to cost $1 million to $2 million a year in the design phase over the next four years, $3.9 million in the first year the tests are given, and $13.6 million annually with the 2009-2010 school year. Much of the cost will be offset when the current tests are abolished, Mr. Peiffer said.

The board's move elicited mixed reactions yesterday from educators and community leaders.

Kathy Seay, associate director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, applauded the action.

"Business thinks it's important for the diploma to mean something," she said. "And business also believes that school systems, schools and students should be held accountable for achieving the high standards."

But Dr. Bernetha George, chairwoman of the Baltimore County NAACP's education committee, worries about putting greater emphasis on standardized tests when many believe those tests are biased against minority children.

"When you start talking about using a test as a measure of what someone is doing, you have to be very careful about that," she said. "What about the person that doesn't test well?"

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