Too accommodating

December 03, 2003

THERE'S SOMETHING to be said for waiting while others rush headlong into controversies: Pausing allows one to weigh the pros and cons, check the direction of the breeze, minimize risk. So it's been for the state school board on the matter of changing graduation requirements to make high school end-of-course exams "count."

Since 1993, Maryland has invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars developing tests to measure a student's mastery of very basic English, math, biology and government.

Today, after several postponements, board members will decide whether to stop here or begin writing state regulations to make the tests mandatory for graduation -- along with a host of alternate routes to a diploma devised to appease critics of state testing and ensure that more teens earn the parchment.

They should stop here.

Some accommodations make sense, such as providing an alternative graduation requirement for special education students. But the proliferation of alternatives obscures whether for the Class of 2009 there's a bar at all. Earn the required course credits plus service learning hours, and complete local requirements, then pass four state tests to get a Maryland diploma. Pass three to get a local diploma, a proposed distinction that conveys ... what? Ah, it's only a Howard County diploma? Pass two tests, try again with remedial help or earn no diploma. Pass vastly tougher tests associated with certain honors programs such as Advanced Placement courses or the International Baccalaureate program, and you're home free.

Where's the bar? This began a decade ago as a well-intentioned effort to assign a uniform value to a Maryland high school diploma by setting new and more rigorous expectations of what students should master by the end of 12th grade. It would thwart grade inflaters and signal a minimum of skills and educational achievement to employers and college recruiters. And it would help close the achievement gap for students from all walks of Maryland by prompting schools to teach to a recognized standard (at least in the tested courses).

The tests would replace the Maryland Functional Exams, widely acknowledged to be sixth-grade level, with something meaningful. In fact, the new tests are said to be a bit tougher: Only about half of the students who took them in the spring passed them -- and passing depended in great measure on whether their instruction hewed to the state learning goals.

That's unfair. As long as the state's public schools remain unequal in resources and teaching quality, as long as it's predictable who will pass and who will fail these tests based on where they go to school, revising the diploma requirements isn't going to achieve the state's laudable goals. Setting a clear and high standard is the right thing to do, but until all the state's public schools are teaching up to it, it's not fair to make the tests potential impediments to graduation.

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