WHEN 13,000 students failed to pass Florida high school exit examinations this year -- and thus were denied graduation -- parents put up a stink. And they got results. Just before graduation in May, the passing scores were lowered enough to allow 1,000 more students to earn the standard diploma.
Meanwhile, California last week delayed from next year to 2006 the date when passing an exit examination will be required for high school graduation. "Not all children have had the opportunity to learn," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. But the real problem was that he and other officials knew the failure rate would be politically unacceptable if the test was at all demanding.
These are but two examples of what can happen on the rocky road of high school testing. Maryland is back down the road a mile or so, just coming around the bend. In the next few weeks, the State Board of Education will be making crucial decisions (a couple of them twice delayed) about when Maryland's High School Assessments will become "official," how many tests students will have to pass to earn a diploma and what the passing scores will be.
The task is complex. The main problem, though, is fairly simple: The higher the passing standard, the more students who will be denied diplomas, and most of those denied will be poor and black kids from Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Or, as the Abell Foundation asks in a thought-provoking report released Monday, "How can we hold students accountable for achievement without making failure so onerous that it over-penalizes disadvantaged students?"
The Abell report -- "High Risk Or High Time?" -- should be required reading for the state board and the 300 Maryland educators involved in the standard-setting exercise. The report asks some tough questions, and because it is written from an outsider's perspective, it nudges toward more openness, more involvement of parents, students and educators.
Maryland gave the first round of five high school tests in the spring of last year, and the scores have been released and posted on high school diplomas (everywhere but in Baltimore City, according to the Abell report). Easy enough to plug them into the demographics. Baltimore students, 45.8 percent of whom receive free lunches, scored a "median percentile" of 28 on the combined tests. Montgomery kids, with 11.1 percent eligible for federal school lunches, scored 70.
California Superintendent O'Connell's phrase "opportunity to learn" wasn't offered without thought. It's the legal test. If the schools aren't teaching what's on the test, if the test isn't lined up with what's in the curriculum, kids don't have the legal opportunity to learn. That's what Holyoke, Mass., the commonwealth's poorest district, maintains in a suit filed against the state.
The Abell report covers other complications. What are the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act and its requirement that schools demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" or face dire consequences? The act, says Abell, "offers strong incentive to set low performance standards." It also, the report says, makes demands that Maryland probably can't afford. An example from the federal General Accounting Office: Maryland received $35 million from the feds for testing between 2002 and 2008. It will spend as much as $91 million on testing.
The report makes several recommendations, most prominent among them that the state set high standards immediately but allow students to reach those standards "gradually, over time." Abell also recommends that Maryland "put adequate and feasible remediation and alternative paths to a high school diploma in place" before the requirements go into effect.
"How will the state," asks the Abell report, "ensure that increased learning, not increased test scores alone, are driving reform?" It's a good question.
The report is available on Abell's Web site, www.abell.org.
Edison Schools founder to buy back company
Chris Whittle, the founder of Edison Schools, which operates three public schools in Baltimore City, said Monday he'll buy back the company from shareholders and take it private.
The deal calls for shareholders of the nation's largest for-profit manager of public schools to be paid $1.76 per share. Shareholders filed seven lawsuits yesterday in Delaware, saying Whittle hadn't properly tested the market.
The Associated Press reported that Edison stock, which had reached $35 a share in 2001, closed Friday at $1.56.