Assessing Students

May 30, 2006

Maryland students have finished newly required high school assessment tests, and some teachers and school districts wonder if there are so many mandated core courses that electives are being overshadowed and even neglected. It's a good question.

With high school graduation at stake, schools obviously need to do what's necessary to help students pass the mandatory tests. But with the current focus on accountability, there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on tests and test results. The virtues of a well-rounded education shouldn't be lost.

This year's ninth-graders were the first group to take statewide assessments in English, algebra, government and biology - once those courses have been completed - as a condition of graduating in 2009. The tests can be taken more than once during a student's high school career. And state and district officials are trying to offer as much help as necessary to make sure that students get their diplomas.

Preparing students for the tests has become so critical that teachers often skip some hours that would have been devoted to social studies, history or other non-tested subjects. Similarly, some districts have started doubling up the amount of time spent on core subjects, especially in schools with large numbers of students needing extra help. That often leaves classes such as family studies, art and music with too few students.

State education officials rightly insist that standards need to keep up with societal changes. Increasingly, educators are being held accountable for preparing high school graduates for college or work. Maryland's assessment tests were instituted, in part, because of complaints by university administrators and business leaders that students came to their institutions lacking basic skills they should have learned in high school.

It's important to make the high school diploma more meaningful as a measure of achievement. But education often operates like a pendulum, and it's still unclear how far the testing craze will swing. K-12 educators know that many students learn in different ways and that art and music, for example, can often be the hook that gets students interested in more basic courses, including reading and math. Schools and districts should also know that while it may be difficult to strike the right balance, for the sake of their students, they must.

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