Testing progress

August 23, 2006

Finally, state educators have something to cheer about in the results of high school assessment tests that were taken during the past school year. The fact that at least two-thirds of all students who took the tests - and more than 70 percent of ninth-graders - passed is a sign of hope that most of the class of 2009 will be able to fulfill this latest graduation requirement.

Currently, about half the states require high school students to pass standardized tests before they can receive a diploma. Exit exams have been administered to Maryland high-schoolers for about 20 years, although some previous versions were not especially rigorous. But pressure from a number of sources caused state education officials to revamp the tests: The higher education community complained that too many students needed remedial help in college, the business community fretted that too many employees lacked basic skills, and the federal No Child Left Behind law has promoted more testing to help ensure that students meet higher standards.

As a result of these and other influences, the state's newest high school assessments are more content-oriented than before, with tests in algebra, biology, government and English II. Although the English test results are not yet in, the passing rates of ninth-graders in the other three tests - 72 percent in algebra, 78 percent in government and 79 percent in biology - had state education officials breathing a qualified sigh of relief that the tests are being taken seriously.

Some continuing areas of concern include the lagging performance of students in Baltimore and in Prince George's county. Although Baltimore improved its passing rate significantly, even surpassing some statewide gains, fewer than half of city students passed the algebra and biology tests and slightly more than half passed the government exam. Similarly, African-Americans, Hispanics, special education students and students from very low-income families continue to lag behind.

That's why school officials can't rest on any laurels. To help even more students pass the tests, some schools are stretching algebra, for example, from a one-year to a two-year course. Other schools and districts are looking to give more intense and focused help to students who are having difficulty with the tests. Although students have multiple opportunities to re-take the tests during their high school careers, the more who can pass the first time around, the better.

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