Half of State's High School Grads Flunk Competency Tests

by Alice Cherbonnier

"The Maryland learning standards have been around for a decade," said a school administrator. "They shouldn't shock any teacher."
Half of the Class of 2003 graduating from Maryland's high schools this year must be sighing in relief. The State Board of Education high school assessment tests they took in English, biology, algebra and government don't count as a graduation requirement--yet.

Were the baseline passing scores set too high, as some test critics suggest? Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education, thinks they're not. "This is a floor," she said in a story published on Aug. 27 in The Sun. She called the test results "staggering," according to the Sun report.

The test scores currently available are broken down by race and economic status, with Asians scoring best (on average a 25% failure rate) and African Americans, Native Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and those who are learning disabled scoring below whites and Asians. As yet, results have not been reported by the state's various subdivisions.

Bill Reinhard, staff specialist of the Board of Education's Office of Communications, Strategic Planning and Academic Outreach, said, "The Maryland learning standards have been around for a decade. They shouldn't shock any teacher."

The test, he explained, was "the work of a hundred academic experts" in consultation with representatives of parent groups, businesses, and higher education, to assure Maryland high school graduates are well-prepared for the next steps in their career paths. McGraw-Hill, a publishing firm specializing in textbooks, was a consultant in test development.

Beta tests of the four subject areas were administered to a group of students by the Department's assessment branch prior to giving the test to all graduates, but teachers themselves did not take it. "That would jeopardize [test] confidentiality," said Reinhard.

He noted that the Department of Education has instituted subject-matter tests for would-be teachers in Maryland, but observed, "It's difficult to get highly qualified teachers, especially in the science and math subject areas." The state's colleges and universities produce only about 2,500 graduates intending to teach in a given year, he said, while Maryland typically has around 7,000 job openings. The balance of new teachers come primarily from surrounding states, where graduation requirements may differ.

The federal "No Child Left Behind Act" may have consequences beyond the public school sector, according to Reinhard, who said that at some point the Department of Education may seek to include private and parochial schools in its testing programs.

As the State of Maryland moves toward passing assessment tests a condition of receiving a high school diploma, objections can be expected to surface. For example, it is demonstrable that student achievement can be linked in part to economic and family circumstances. Should it be public policy, for example, to deny a high school diploma--a basic qualification for finding self-supporting work--to a young person who has grown up with disadvantages beyond his or her control? Should the State go ahead with administering the test before it has put in place the fair-funding measures dictated by the Thornton Commission? The Commission found substantial inequalities in the State's schools and decreed that the State must rectify them so that all children have an opportunity to achieve according to standards set by the State.

Civil liberties litigation may be instituted in behalf of such students if a "level playing field" cannot be demonstrated. Bebe Verdery, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, has been tracking the State's testing policies. "In some ways, we like testing," she said, "because it shows the true gap" in education funding and quality in Maryland. She noted, however, that Maryland is "years away from full Thornton funding," and questioned the wisdom of "putting these tests out there" before students and schools are adequately equipped to prepare for them.

The Department of Education makes sample questions from earlier versions of its high school assessment tests available to the public online. Visit here.

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This story was published on August 27, 2003.