JUNE WAS A watershed month for high-stakes testing, the crown jewel in a tumultuous decade of school accountability reforms intended to increase the value of a high school diploma.
With the debut of several states' new tests as graduation requirements this spring, controversies flared: Thousands have aced the tests, typically keyed to ninth- or 10th-grade content. And thousands more have flunked and have been denied diplomas, including some A- and B-students who had been on track to graduate. Their outcry has prompted some state legislatures and school systems to abandon or postpone programs, sideline troubled exams, and dumb down standards or modify scoring to ensure more students can pass.
And while some states backpedal and re-examine their standards and methods, Maryland stands poised to make the leap.
Since 2001, Maryland High School Assessment scores have been reported on transcripts for parents and colleges to see, prompting many students and high schools to work harder. Raising the stakes, it is theorized, will achieve even more.
This summer, the state school board will decide how well a test-taker must do to pass algebra, geometry, English, biology and government tests. The board is scheduled in September to make a much-delayed decision whether to require these tests for high school graduation, perhaps in 2008. Its caution will prove to be well-founded if Maryland can avoid pitfalls that have ensnared so many other states:
Setting standards too high or low. Last month, New York's education commissioner scrapped a state math exam failed by 70 percent of test-takers.
Letting failure change the rules. Since 14,000 Florida students failed to graduate this spring, officials there have considered accepting SAT or ACT scores toward graduation. Texas, meanwhile, has lowered its "cut score," the number of questions one must answer correctly to pass an exam; Washington and Arizona may follow suit.
Testing what they don't teach. Some schools in Cambridge, Mass., resisted "teaching to the test" because officials preferred a more varied curriculum; higher than expected failures resulted. In Nevada, some students given the math test had not taken algebra or geometry.
About 27 states now use exit exams, but research does not yet show conclusively that these improve learning, the Center on Education Policy cautioned last year.
Anecdotally, this much is clear: Officials must take care so that failures are not caused by inadequate schooling or policies. Requiring exit exams for graduation will be challenged as unfair if instruction and course content, the pass/fail cutoff and remediation options for failing students are not well-calibrated.
For reasons such as these, says Marilyn D. Maultsby, state school board president, the future of high-stakes testing here may well be tied to that of Thornton Commission school reform aid -- $1.3 billion that lawmakers pledged and now must ante up.
Disparities in school quality must be addressed so that students have a fair shot at passing, no matter where in Maryland they go to school.