BOB SOMERBY, a Baltimore comedian, is one of the few people on the planet who makes a living telling jokes.
But Somerby is deadly serious about education. He taught fifth grade in Baltimore for a dozen years and knows something about the multiple problems facing city schools. One of them is not a lack of standards, Somerby believes. President Clinton's call for "national" standards is a joke, he says. And Somerby knows from jokes.
He also makes a good point. There is no shortage of education standards in Maryland, or in Baltimore. Nor is there a shortage of tests to measure how far students are from meeting the standards. In embracing the president's call for national fourth- and eighth-grade tests in reading and mathematics, Maryland education officials have committed the schools to still another layer of testing on top of the thick sediment already in place.
In Baltimore, this will make another major test -- the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams required by the state, the Baltimore Quarterly Assessment (a MSPAP-like test launched last fall without consultation with teachers) and now the new national tests.
Let us count three ways this is a bad idea:
The majority of states have standards for student achievement. Maryland's MSPAP, as Clinton said Monday in Annapolis, is held up as a national model. It's true that the states' standards are dramatically different from one another. A national "report card" issued a couple of weeks ago by the trade publication Education Week made that clear, but that's to be expected in a nation in which education is so deliberately decentralized.
We already have a National Assessment of Educational Progress -- or lack of it. It's almost 30 years old. It tests reading and math and other disciplines and allows states to compare themselves with one another. Forty-five states participate. The results, issued periodically, are always dismal. For example, Maine had the best score in the nation on the 1994 NAEP fourth-grade reading test, yet 59 percent of its fourth-graders could not read proficiently.
Here's a sample problem from the NAEP eighth-grade math test, on which 80 percent of Maryland 13-year-olds could not demonstrate proficiency two years ago: Tracy said, "I can multiply 6 by another number and get an answer that is smaller than 6." Pat said, "No, you can't. Multiplying 6 by another number always makes the number 6 or larger." Who is correct? Give a reason for your answer.
If four-fifths of Maryland eighth-graders aren't able to discern that Tracy is correct, is the solution to set the bar still higher? Isn't the solution to teach youngsters to multiply at a younger age than 13?
Math is probably the easiest field in which to set standards and perhaps the only one in which it would be possible to get agreement on a set of national goals. (The mathematicians already have agreed on common standards.) NAEP has managed to avoid controversy by making state participation voluntary (which Clinton says his tests also will be) and by allowing score comparisons only at the state level. There's huge disagreement on standards in fields other than mathematics, as the historians proved in trying to set history standards a couple of years ago. Why waste the time and money?
This isn't to say that the federal government has no legitimate role in helping schools. But why not assist students in meeting the standards that are already in place? There's no need for a "national test testing the standards," as the chief standard-bearer put it in Annapolis on Monday.
State's two oldest colleges busy celebrating, debating
Washington College in Chestertown and St. John's College in Annapolis vie for the title of the oldest college in Maryland. It's a debate over semantics, really, and only a fool would choose sides.
What's happening at the state's oldest colleges? Washington is celebrating its namesake and sponsor on his birthday Feb. 22with a convocation and awards for National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Jane Alexander, painter James Wyeth and Alonzo G. Decker Jr., retired Black & Decker Corp. chief executive officer.
St. John's is debating the addition of female writers to its canon of Great Books. A 1953 graduate writes in the winter edition of the school's always informative newsletter that though he is an admirer of Emily Dickinson, "I simply cannot imagine putting her on the same level as John Donne."
Among the favorites for Great Books inclusion: Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" and work by Virginia Woolf.
Pub Date: 2/12/97