Eight years remain until this fall's Maryland fifth-graders, the Class of 2004, will have to pass tough new tests to graduate from high school.
These examinations are far more rigorous and sophisticated than the "functional" tests that have been a Maryland fixture for two decades. They would move the state from the front ranks to the very head of the national school reform movement.
But behind the scenes there is intense debate over a question that is as much political as it is educational: How hard will the tests be? More to the point, how hard will it be to pass?
On the one side is Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, state school superintendent, who calls the battery of 10 high school exit tests the "culminating feature" of her administration. She is supported by the state's business leaders and many educators and politicians.
On the other side are those from the state's struggling districts who say raising the bar too high will be disastrous if money doesn't materialize to prepare teachers and students for the much more demanding standards. Grasmick and company stuck their guns in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, refusing to lower standards for Baltimore City and other poor districts.
The result was that 40 of 42 failing schools ordered to reform in the first three years of MSPAP were in the city.
MSPAP has high standards, and city schools are far behind the rest of the state. But MSPAP is a test of schools, not individuals, and that makes all the difference. "When people fail to meet the [high school] standards, it's going to get very noisy and very political," Norman R. Augustine, chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp., warned the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education last week.
"There's going to be pressure to lower the standards if a large number of students can't meet them," Gov. Parris N. Glendening told the group. "I think that would be a terrible mistake."
The state has worked on the tests for two years, and the state's teachers have seen some of the preliminary versions. Students are scheduled to start taking them "for real" in 2001 after a "no-fault" period. The Class of 2004 would be the first to have to jump over the bar to grab a diploma.
Here are two of the questions being debated by a state task force: Will students have to pass all 10 of the tests to graduate, or can they earn a diploma having passed, say, eight of them?
Should there be a two-tier program that would allow students of lesser ability to graduate without passing the rigorous tests? There is precedent for this in New York state, where advanced students have earned Regents diplomas since 1879. The New York Board of Regents voted in the spring to require every student in the state to pass the Regents tests after a phase-in period similar in length to Maryland's.
Maryland has a legal, not to say moral, obligation to prepare students to meet the higher standards. "You can't just raise the bar without giving the students the opportunity to reach the standards," said June E. Streckfus, executive director of the Business Roundtable for Education.
This means overhauling the curriculum and improving its delivery. If that doesn't happen, the state can be sued by unhappy students and their parents. It happened in Florida, and Maryland officials are acutely aware of it. They also don't want to see a large number of students fail the tests while earning A's and B's on their report cards. That would be embarrassing, if not another temptation to lawyers.
Just how high can the bar be raised? So that 50 percent fail? Twenty-five percent? Ten percent?
Education is far from an exact science, but there is a point at which the politicians, under pressure from parents and students, will draw the line.
The Business Roundtable and state Education Department have been holding "focus groups" with parents and educators, and the University of Maryland College Park did some polling on the question last fall.
Nearly three-quarters of Marylanders said they were dissatisfied with high school education and were willing to see students work more than four years to complete high school if it meant they were learning at a very high level, according to Ronald A. Peiffer, an Education Department spokesman.
The MSPAP program is perhaps too new to use as a predictor of how the high school tests will fare. MSPAP has, however, maintained bipartisan political support despite the lopsided incidence of failure in Baltimore City.
A better precedent might be the Maryland functional test of writing, which got off to a rocky start in the 1980s, when the sons and daughters of many of the state's middle-class citizens, and the offspring of a few very important people, flunked it.
Two decades later, grading on the writing test is unchanged, and 98.5 percent of the state's high school juniors have passed it. Either teachers have adjusted the curriculum to match the test, or Maryland kids are indeed better writers.
Grasmick and her supporters hope the latter is what happens with the high school reform.
More Barclay-Calvert kudos
The Barclay School-Calvert School collaboration, Baltimore's greatest claim to educational fame since Education Alternatives Inc., has received another glowing evaluation from researchers at the Johns Hopkins University.
Hopkins' fifth-year evaluation of the unique partnership between the private Calvert and the public, inner-city Barclay covers the 1994-1995 school year, so it does not report on the Barclay-Calvert divorce announced in the spring. Barclay, however, will continue to use the Calvert curriculum and teaching methods.
Pub Date: 6/23/96