U.S. education chief urges making high school courses more rigorous

But secretary praises Md. for requiring regular tests

March 15, 2005|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told a state education panel yesterday that the nation should overhaul its high schools by making courses more rigorous and requiring routine testing of all students.

With only 68 percent of students graduating from high school in four years and only 18 percent completing college, Spellings said the country will no longer be able to compete globally unless something is done.

"We need to extend the accountability into high schools," she said, speaking to the Governor's Commission on Quality Education in Maryland in Annapolis.

Although the idea has gotten a lukewarm reception in other states, Maryland has put in place graduation standards for high schools. Today's eighth-graders will be the first class to have to pass a series of exams to get a high school diploma.

Spellings praised Maryland for being ahead of other states in requiring regular testing. "The eyes of the nation are on Maryland," Spellings said. "Over 70 percent of third-graders in the state scored above the proficient level," she said noting that it was more than a 10 percent gain over the previous year. In addition, she noted the rise in scores last year for African-American children.

"Whenever you get results like this, it is not an accident," Spellings said.

She praised Maryland's state schools superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, who as one of the longest-serving state education secretaries began annual testing of students in certain grades in the early 1990s in an attempt to make schools more accountable for their performance. Those measures are what many states are now struggling to comply with under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The recently confirmed education secretary said she hoped Maryland would encourage the proliferation of charter schools as well as offer students more choices in the schools they attend.

Spellings was in the state to help garner more support for President Bush's proposal to extend the No Child Left Behind Act. The $1.7 billion proposal calls for more money for programs for students who are at risk of dropping out, have poor math skills or don't read well.

She indicated that as secretary, she would have a more flexible approach to interpreting the law while maintaining its integrity. Last month, the National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report calling for major changes in the law, including how student progress is measured, how schools are punished if they fall short and who decides when the rules are waived for struggling districts.

In a private meeting later yesterday at Annapolis High School, Spellings talked to about 25 students, teachers, principals and education advocates about implementation of the law.

Grasmick said Spellings was told by a number of people that they have concerns about aspects of the law, including requirements for special education and "the importance of not just looking at the compliance but the quality of instruction."

Some also expressed concern that the law's requirement that teachers be "highly qualified" by a certain date is difficult during a time of teacher shortages.

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