Educrats due a bit of reality therapy

Testing: The new Maryland High School Assessment program is seen as unlikely to succeed, because the policy- making is flawed in ways that money can't fix.

July 02, 2000|By Phil Greenfield

LIKE MANY policies emanating from our Maryland Board of Education these days, the recent threat to pull the plug on the new High School Assessment Tests in protest over the governor's reluctance to pony up millions of dollars in additional funding proved to be nothing more than a bluff.

Instead, in a "compromise" measure, the board voted to keep the new exit exams, but to postpone implementing them as requirements for graduation until 2007. To combat student apathy in the face of yet another seven years of tests that don't count a whit, comparative evaluation scores (not the raw numbers themselves) will be posted on all academic transcripts in the interim.

As a high school teacher whose job it will be to prepare youngsters for examinations that will remain utterly irrelevant to their lives for the better part of the next decade, let me shake my head in renewed amazement at our ivory tower educrats who propose to go right on hijacking instructional practices in the name of requirements they haven't the guts to make stick. A little reality therapy, if you please.

Affixing a manufactured score that doesn't count on a transcript that many students don't care about anyway does nothing - nada, zip, zilch - for the efficacy of these fledgling tests.

The new program is unlikely to fly, not so much because of flaws in the new tests, but because the policy-making leading up to the assessments program has been flawed in ways that another $49 million - or another 49 years - won't make a dent in.

Recall that the High School Assessments initiative is the second phase of a two-part reform package that began with the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program which has been in place since the late 1980s, but has been ruling the instructional roost in our elementary and middle schools for a lot longer than that.

The sad, frustrating, expensive truth is that Part A of the reform process has proven to be spectacularly nonpreparatory to Part B. Indeed, everywhere you look at MSPAP and the High School Assessments, you see inconsistencies of approach that are downright staggering. Allow me to note three of the most glaring.

MSPAP is dedicated to the proposition that teaching "mere" skills and academic content to the elementary and middle schoolers of Maryland is an insult to God and man. Why? Because the kids must become "critical thinkers" and "problem solvers" above all else. So facts are "out," grammatical instruction is heretical, and something as basic as, say, compelled memorization of the time tables is beneath the dignity of one and all.

True learning, say the MSPAPers, occurs only when youngsters sit about in groups and engage in an activity like constructing bridges out of raw spaghetti and marshmallows. Exit knowledge; enter problem solving. But wait. On the High School Assessments, content is in vogue, and skill mastery is mandatory.

Compulsory assessments in algebra? American Government? World Civ? Biology? After being prepared for what in middle school over the past decade-plus? Horses are being changed in mid-stream, and results will be disastrous.

Don't be swayed for a moment by the state "experts" who swear up and down that knowledge and skill-based instruction go hand-in-hand with the MSPAP curriculum. They do not, and if you don't believe me, just look at the wonderful results achieved recently by the heroic youngsters of Baltimore City. Their scores on the California Test of Basic Skills jumped this year after their equally heroic teachers dumped MSPAP's marshmallow-based instruction off the end of the wagon and went with a vengeance after skills, skills and more skills. Say what you want about the city school system; at least it recognizes an unclad emperor when it sees one.

A second immense problem is MSPAP's infatuation with "cooperative learning" - group work in English, as the teaching style of choice. Enter an MSPAP-driven classroom these days and, more often than not, you'll find youngsters nattering about in packs, engaged in activities such as the aforementioned spaghetti bridge endeavor. Why? Because "cooperative learning," the MSPAPers insist, is preparatory for the workplace in which many employees must work collegially to solve problems.

Nonsense, I say, for two reasons: First, it places the cart way before the horse, and, second, it strangles the High School Assessments program in its crib. Like high school finals, Advanced Placement tests, SATs, college finals, Graduate Record Exams, Law School Admissions Tests, Medical College Admissions Tests, Ph.D. orals, doctoral dissertation defenses, and every other meaningful test ever constructed by civilized people, the Maryland High School Assessments must be taken and passed by individuals, not groups. Any "group work" that well-paid professionals do is assigned only after a great many individual hurdles have been cleared.

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