No exit

April 22, 2007

CLARIFICATION

An editorial Sunday was imprecise about the number of opportunities this year's high school sophomores will have to take the state's High School Assessment tests, a requirement for graduation. The tests can be taken this year, next year or the year after; there will be several administrations of the tests each year.

There are three tries left for the high school Class of 2009. Either the 55,000 or so Maryland kids who are likely still to be in school by June of that year pass the state's exit exams - or no diploma. Is this a train wreck taking place in not-so-slow motion? Some educational groups warn that as many as 25,000 students will find themselves unable to graduate.

That's probably an overstatement. Officials at the State Department of Education expect that school systems will make considerable progress in getting their students over the hump. They also point to the experience of other states, where kids who are denied a diploma because of failed exams generally wouldn't have qualified for one anyway, for other reasons. But the pass rates - so far, at least - for minority students in particular are dangerously low. The State Board of education should pay close attention to the 2007 results, once they come in, and decide sooner rather than later whether it's prudent to proceed according to plan.

One thing the state should not do is simply put off the effective date for the exams without deciding how schools must go about raising the success rate.

The tests were instituted to provide a stern measure of accountability - but ultimately it's the accountability of the schools that's at issue, and not the students. The tests shine a light on the schools' performance; if thousands of students have not passed after taking a round of exams this June, that will tell Marylanders something about the quality of their high schools, and it must spur action to address the deficiencies.

Such action might require in the end a delay for a year or two; the state superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, has suggested there might be such a delay for children in special education and those with limited English. But a statewide postponement of the requirement would make sense only if it's accompanied by a concrete effort to put the necessary instruction in place.

It's worth noting that the state still has not achieved full funding under the Thornton plan, designed to address inequities of wealth and poverty. That's one reason not to stay the course. The highly qualified teachers and the sorts of interventions that are necessary in a low-achieving system such as Baltimore's cost money; one thing the results on this year's assessment tests will show is how and where additional Thornton funds should be spent.

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