Reassessing the tests

August 30, 2007

After stubbornly insisting that every Maryland high school student would have to pass certain tests before receiving a diploma, state education officials are showing some welcome flexibility. Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed this week that students who repeatedly fail the tests could submit a detailed project instead.

State and local school officials are right to raise standards in an effort to ensure that high school graduates acquire sufficient knowledge to succeed in college or at work. But officials must also see that students get the help they need and are not pushed out of school. Their formal recognition that not all students perform well on standardized tests is long overdue.

The latest High School Assessment results suggest that the vast majority of the 55,000 students expected to graduate in 2009 may not be derailed by the four required tests, but there are certainly reasons to be concerned. The pass rate for current 11th-graders who have taken the algebra exam is about 77 percent, while the pass rates for the other exams are 71 percent in government, 68 percent in English and 62 percent in biology. Students have several more opportunities to take all the tests before the spring 2009 deadline, but in a school district such as Baltimore - where the pass rates are generally below 50 percent - time is running out.

A small group of students could be helped by the "comparable" assessment that state education officials are now supporting. Although details are not yet final, Ms. Grasmick proposes that during the 2008-2009 school year, seniors who have failed one or more of the required tests at least two times would be eligible to work on a project to prove their proficiency. Officials are taking the right steps to ensure the project doesn't become a default option or a way out. Qualifying students would have to show that they met other criteria for passing the course, such as grades or attendance, even though they failed the test. And projects would have to be approved by the district superintendent or a designee, with standard-setting and monitoring by the state. Ms. Grasmick acknowledges that, on average, only about 10 students in each of the state's 240 high schools would be eligible.

That still leaves a lot of students in jeopardy. State education officials must do everything possible to help low-performing districts provide more quality instruction and targeted interventions to get students over the hump.

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