Better English

November 23, 2005

A new statewide English test that will soon be required for high school graduation stumped more than 40 percent of 10th-graders who took it last spring. Even though the test doesn't yet count for students, it counts for the districts and the teachers who are responsible for getting good results and it tells them what areas they need to work on to improve student performance. In that regard, State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick was right when she called the less-than-stellar test results a "wakeup call in many ways."

As part of a decade-long effort to raise high-school standards, the graduating class of 2009 will have to pass four tests - English, algebra, biology and government - to earn diplomas. On the English test preview, the passing average for the state was 57.4 percent, with more than 50 schools registering less than a 33 percent passing rate and 20 top-performing schools hitting passing rates of more than 80 percent.

The state's highest performer was Baltimore's own Polytechnic Institute, the citywide, selective-admission school where 94 percent of 10th-graders who took the test passed. Among the lowest performers were about 20 alternative and special program schools that often serve troubled children.

People at the state department of education say the differences between high- and low-performing schools include quality teaching and a more demanding curriculum. In addition to those points of focus, city school officials are also looking to improve writing skills as the key to increasing reading levels and language comprehension.

Tests are important not just to highlight student and teaching strengths and weaknesses, but to ensure compliance with federal requirements for yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Maryland schools and districts have their work cut out for them to ensure that current high-school freshmen do better in English - and in the other required assessments - between now and the time those students hope to graduate.

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