Test of resolve

January 06, 2004

SIXTY PERCENT of Maryland high school students failed to pass last year's English 1 competency exam, according to results made public last month. That's more than 39,000 students.

There would be rivers of tears and boatloads of recriminations if that test of basic reading comprehension, writing and grammar had been required for graduation. But the fact that it's not ought not excuse the dismal, declining performance.

Instead of calling it what it is, too many educators tripped on their own rhetoric: The schools and the students will take the tests more seriously and do better, they said, when the test "counts." Citing the historical trend of scores spiking after tests are tied to graduation, Maryland education leaders have acknowledged they don't expect a leap in progress until then -- but that's not supposed to happen until 2009. If we believe that, we're to accept that there will be a wait of up to five years for progress to jump-start? Unacceptable.

Scores from 2002 and now 2003 are supposed to be logged on each student's permanent record card, the basis of district-issued transcripts. Those districts that are being honest are recording these failures in the transcripts that are made available to parents, and that are needed for scholarships, college and some first-job applications. In our book, that "counts," if everybody's playing by the rules in a society that increasingly demands proof of merit. Watering it down or papering it over simply enables ignorance and mediocrity, and worse, robs the students of a vital lesson best learned young.

As long ago as 1996, the state Department of Education began distributing outlines of the content that every high school graduate should know and be tested on. Every district claims it has focused its teaching on the state's core learning goals for English 1, but the percentage of students passing the test fell statewide and in Baltimore. In some Baltimore neighborhood high schools, fewer than 10 students passed it. The English 1 scores fell even in Baltimore's best-regarded high schools -- down 13 percentage points at City College, 11 points at Polytechnic Institute, 16 points at Western, 10 points at Baltimore School for the Arts.

School districts won't begin receiving very detailed test results until later this year. And state-designed online test preparation materials and mini-tests that teachers can use all year long to check student progress won't be ready before the next round of testing, in January, May and this summer.

Speeding these tools to principals should be the highest priority. In the long term, the state also must work toward streamlining the many federal and local testing requirements. And though they're not currently required to, school districts should begin now offering the most basic of consequences to students who have failed the English 1 test: remediation.

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