I don't know which is more annoying: folks who grouse and grumble about what's going on - like me - or people like those who tell us that the results of Maryland's new required exams to graduate from high school are a success. Here's a set of tests, in English, algebra, biology and government, designed ostensibly to boost the level of learning needed to receive a diploma, administered to more than 60,000 students, and only 11 fail to graduate solely because they could not pass them. I understand the political need to dumb down the tests, or in the delicate wording of a Washington Post story on the matter, "the compromises educators face in balancing what is politically palatable against raising academic standards." But the degree of the dumbing down is quite remarkable.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told her school board, "I think this is a very optimistic report. It's just been an amazing job." However, she acknowledged the low level of the tests, saying, "We have said repeatedly that the High School Assessments were a floor and not a ceiling. Now that we've achieved a floor, I think the next step is to raise the standards."
In fairness, toughening academic standards in public schools is a terribly difficult thing to do, but if the state is to hold schools responsible for making sure the kids they graduate have actually learned something, this first year the testing itself doesn't get a passing grade. Logic tells us that making high school seniors pass exacting tests in order to graduate would result in fewer graduates and correspondingly greater numbers of dropouts. This didn't happen. Graduation rates actually rose by a percentage point. Furthermore, nearly a third of the class of 2009, according to the newspaper reports I've read, were allowed to graduate without passing all four exams. Another 5.8 percent got their diplomas by completing projects meant to demonstrate the subject mastery they didn't succeed in demonstrating in the tests.
Is this exit exam idea anything more than an elaborate hoax? Are the standards being set high enough? Nobody is saying that they are, and they're promising to move the bar higher. But is that going to be any easier going forward than it is now?
Sun reporter Liz Bowie wrote about the debate over these tests in the Wednesday newspaper, and she quoted Benjamin Feldman, the chief accountability officer of the Baltimore City Public Schools as saying, "I think the average citizen will look at this and say, 'This is not an endorsement of rigor to the diploma.'" On the other hand, he said, "You don't want to take kids who are staying in school and say you don't have a future. This is a subtle and difficult conversation." That summarizes the situation quite well.
More than half the states now have an exam requirement for high school graduation, but only Louisiana has a standard of pass it or you don't graduate. All the others are more it less in the same boat as Maryland, trying to finesse the fact that for such tests to be meaningful, failure must be allowed.
For years, employers and colleges have been complaining that the high school graduates they hire or enroll are woefully ill equipped for training on the job or in the classroom. As many as 40 percent of incoming college freshmen need remedial math or English classes. Some of the reason for that sad fact can be laid at the feet of the educational system, but we all know that the most essential factors in getting properly educated are the level of motivation of the student herself and her cognitive abilities. Schools don't function well as surrogate parents and can't force knowledge on the unwilling.
Ms. Grasmick, the state's school superintendents, principals and teachers have their work cut out for them. That's what we know for sure.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is