Raising the stakes in Maryland

May 21, 2006|By MICHAEL CORBIN

The High School Assessments that begin this week have been administered for more than a decade, but this year marks their transformation into genuinely high-stakes testing for students because they must pass exams in algebra, English, biology and government to receive a diploma.

While much attention has been paid to the scores in Baltimore, significant numbers of students across Maryland have not passed these tests.

For example, while only 34 percent of Baltimore students passed the English HSA in 2005, only 29 percent of students in Somerset County passed the same test. That figure was 41 percent in Prince George's County and 69 percent in Montgomery County.

For all of Maryland, only 57 percent of students would have been deemed proficient enough in English to receive a high school diploma in 2005. Maryland education officials have claimed that significant increases in the pass rate will occur beginning this month because students will know the stakes and will perform significantly better than before.

Setting aside this dubious pedagogical theory and the debate about the value of the tests as a measure of meaningful learning, this is an opportunity to examine the larger question of what we want public education to achieve, particularly in this era of ostensible accountability. If the stakes are high for students, what are the stakes for the rest of us?

By making students responsible for passing the test, we are able to reinforce that great American value of individualism. Nothing but you and your bootstraps stand in the way of making it in America, or at least in high school in Maryland.

Yet public education in America - at least since Horace Mann's common schools in the 19th century, which he viewed as the "great equalizer" - have also enshrined other values besides individualism.

Mr. Mann and others believed that everyone, regardless of class or status, was entitled to the same educational content. Education was a public good because it allowed us to believe that regardless of our existing inequalities, America was fundamentally about equality of opportunity; education would be the mechanism by which social mobility would occur.

All testing is about sorting and labeling. Advocates for testing suggest that this is precisely the value of testing because it allows us to sort the successful from the unsuccessful.

One demographic truth about standardized tests is that their scores are highly correlated with the test takers' socioeconomic status. When this month's results from the Maryland HSA are published, it will undoubtedly show that, generally, the students in one class of society did less well than students from other stations in life. We will have winners and losers, passers and failers, but our system of education will make sure that, over time, the winners and losers switch places on occasion.

However, if we live in a society where the winners and losers are not able to change places, public education notwithstanding, an exercise in sorting and labeling becomes, perversely, a way for us to feel satisfied with our current set of winners and losers, passers and failers. In America today, the winners and losers usually stay put. To give just two examples of many on the absence of social mobility in today's America:

According to the Economic Policy Institute, from 1979 to 2000, the real income of households at the bottom 20 percent of earners in the country grew by 6.4 percent, while that of households in the top fifth increased by 70 percent.

The family income of the top 1 percent rose 184 percent - and that of the top one-tenth percent and one-hundredth percent grew even faster. In 1979, the average income of the top 1 percent was 133 times that of the bottom 20 percent; by 2000, the income of the top 1 percent had risen to 189 times that of the bottom fifth.

Moreover, the Century Foundation finds that three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the wealthiest socioeconomic fourth, compared with just 3 percent who come from the poorest fourth (the median family income at Harvard, for example, is $150,000). This means that, at an elite university, you are 25 times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor one.

"It is a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals," observed Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.

Students will assume the burden of high-stakes testing. We will treat them equally as individuals. We will hold them accountable. If we believe in the value of public education, the rest of us need to make sure that there is a payoff in this high-stakes game. Please open your test booklet.

Michael Corbin teaches at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, an innovation public high school in Baltimore that is part of the high school reform effort. His e-mail is mcx5@verizon.net.

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