State educators need accountability, too

January 17, 2000|By Kalman R. Hettleman

MARYLAND has a nationally acclaimed school accountability program. But it's a one-way street. The state board of education and department of education hold local school systems accountable through rigorous state performance tests (MSPAP). However, virtually no attention has been paid to holding state education officials responsible for their overall record in improving student achievement.

That record has been far below satisfactory and warrants closer scrutiny than it has received. The statewide drop in MSPAP scores last year is only the tip of the iceberg of unfulfilled expectations. State educators trumpet the rise -- from 31.7 to 43.8 -- in the percentage of students achieving atleast a satisfactory score since MSPAP's inception in 1993. But the state set a goal of 70 percent by 2000. And almost all of the progress occurred in the first three years.

In the past five years, scores have stagnated, increasing less than 1 percent per year on average. In addition, even the modest gains in MSPAP haven't been matched in the performance of Maryland students on the standardized National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests given in most states. NAEP scores of Maryland students have risen far less than MSPAP scores, and Maryland has gained scant ground compared with other states.

The upticks in MSPAP seem more attributable to teachers learning to teach to the tests than to real gains in academic proficiency. Worse of all, the performance of disadvantaged Maryland students remains tragically low.

In Baltimore and Prince George's County, where poverty is most concentrated, the percentages of students achieving at least a satisfactory MSPAP score are 16.9 and 31.9, respectively. State officials admit that more than 90 percent of at-risk students may fail the new state high school exams and be denied graduation diplomas. But where does responsibility for this unacceptable record lie -- with the state or with local school systems?

Clearly, both levels share responsibility, but the state's share has been largely ignored. A major reason is the state's tendency to cast the blame on local schools. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that the state department of education believed that the "flattening [MSPAP] scores point to the need for individual schools and districts to work harder and smarter in making sure children have mastered basic skills."

Fair enough, but what about the need for the state itself to work harder and smarter? For starters, state educators must admit that the premise of its "standards-based" reform strategy is fatally flawed. The theory was that tougher content standards (what's taught), performance standards (what's tested) and accountability standards (sanctions for poor results) would raise expectations. High standards alone would cause test scores to soar.

Other states have gone down the same road. Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, calls this the "field of dreams" theory -- build the standards and schools will meet them. However, while the field has been built, the lack of progress in student achievement indicates that teachers and students haven't been given enough balls and bats to make a game of it. And low-income students, in particular, are still striking out.

Why have elected officials and educators in Maryland and elsewhere, clung for so long to the fantasy that merely raising standards would work? Why have they neglected to give equal weight to prescribing research-based best instructional practices and providing the resources to pay for them? Why do state officials almost invariably tell schools what they're doing wrong, but have relatively little to say about how to get it right?

One explanation is that best instructional practices cost a lot of money. However, raising standards costs virtually nothing. Another is that if state educators take a stand on best practices, they will have to accept partial responsibility for the results.

State educators say that they can't dictate policy to local districts. But the state should do much more -- as studies by Advocates for Children and Youth show -- to require low-performing schools to use best practices.

There are, however, several encouraging signs. The unsung hero is state board member Edward Andrews. He prodded the board in January 1998 to link approval of the new high school exams to "mandatory interventions" in all grades to enable students to pass the exams.

The state dragged its feet for a year, and Maryland lags behind many states in funding for such interventions. But the board has finally required local districts to provide interventions, such as summer school, tutoring and after-school programs and asked the governor for about $49 million in next year's budget for them.

That is only a small down payment on the projected costs statewide. However, a new panel has been created by the governor and the legislature to recommend an overhaul of Maryland's inequitable and inadequate school funding.

The state deserves credit for efforts such as high standards and partnerships with the city and Prince George's County's school systems. But student test results show that these initiatives have been necessary but not sufficient. For more progress to occur, accountability must be a two-way street. There must be more intense public examination of how well state, as well as local, educators are performing. Otherwise school reform in Maryland will wind up at a dead end.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant.

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