THE TROUBLE with reforming institutions as large as school systems is that by the time the hard work pays off, most of the officials who braved the initial opposition are no longer around to bask in the success. Maryland has been especially fortunate in sustaining support for an often-tedious reform process through several election cycles. The rewards were evident last week.
The announcement of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores showed another year of overall improvement, despite disappointing results in some school districts and individual schools. MSPAP tests for third, fifth and eighth-graders are designed to determine how well their schools are preparing them for the skills they will need in the future. In the five years the tests have been administered, the state's composite scores have risen by 10 percentage points, to 41.8 percent.
MSPAP introduced a new concept to Maryland's education system: the notion of holding schools accountable, rather than individual students. The idea was difficult for many teachers, administrators and parents to get used to. Now, however, most of the opposition to MSPAP has dissipated as Marylanders begin to see positive results.
The release of the most recent MSPAP scores came only a day after the state Board of Education voted unanimously to proceed to the next stages of reform by instituting competency tests for high school students. When the program is fully in place after a phase-in period, the tests will assess students' knowledge in as many as 12 different subjects.
The board's unanimous support of the proposal is significant. Certainly the vote represents confidence in state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, whose ability to listen and respond to criticisms smoothed the way for this essential step. But the unanimity of the decision also sends a strong signal that school reform remains on track, and that the board intends to keep it headed in the right direction.
Beginning with students entering ninth grade in 2000, passing scores on competency tests will be required for high school graduation. If that seems a burden to students, consider what it will do for their employment prospects. A state that can demonstrate that its high school diploma is keyed to high standards is giving its young people a leg up.
Even former critics of the proposal supported the vote. State PTA President Carmela Veit, one of the most vocal opponent of the proposal, dropped her opposition to the high school tests and praised the board for its responsiveness to her organization's concerns.
The board also turned its attention to reading problems, hearing from a task force examining ways to improve the training of teachers in reading instruction. Currently, the state requires only one course in reading instruction, although individual colleges can require more.
The consequences of deficient teacher training are increasingly evident as students around the country fail to perform work at their own grade level. In the most recent nationwide test, some 40 percent of fourth-graders had mastered little or no work at their grade level.
The task force is proposing that requirements for reading instruction be quadrupled. There is also significant support on the board and from Dr. Grasmick for performance-based testing to determine whether teachers are prepared to be effective reading teachers.
Even with these changes, there would still be problems to iron out -- how, for instance, to train or retrain teachers already in the system. But those problems are manageable, once the board has made it clear that the preparation of teachers is not complete unless they are fully prepared in reading instruction -- which, Dr. Grasmick plainly says, includes thorough grounding in phonics instruction.
As Dr. Grasmick says, "The people at the colleges need to understand that we're not going to take teachers without that body of knowledge." Now there's a clear message. If colleges don't heed it, they will need to be prepared to explain their foot-dragging when their graduates have trouble finding a job.
Pub Date: 12/15/97