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On the last of the MSA tests and national standards [Editorial]

If we're going to have national standards in education, there have to be national standards.

On the whole, the increased national debate over national education policy in the past several years has brought some important issues to the forefront, some of which previously had become lost in the weeds of local policies. Probably the most important point is that a high school diploma earned in the United States certifies certain levels of proficiency have been achieved in certain core areas: math, science, English and language arts, as well as history and civics.

Most everyone can agree on that as a starting point. From there, consensus erodes very quickly. National standards require either a set of federal guidelines, or a set of guidelines agreed upon by the states themselves. The reason for this is simple: public education policy is controlled, and receives most of its funding from state and local governments. Without either a federal policy, or one each of the states has signed off on, there will be 50 different standards for what it means to have earned a high school diploma. That problem, to a large degree, is one of the reasons education policy evolved from a state and local matter into one regularly featured in discussions on national policy.

The long and short of all this is a set of federal national guidelines was established, known as No Child Left Behind, and state tests were modified to reflect how students were doing compared to the national expectation. In Maryland, this was a particularly positive development because the previous incarnation of statewide testing was meaningless to individual students and, as such, probably not a particularly faithful reflection of their abilities.

As sometimes happens when federal policies are imposed on the states, especially in realms where the state historically has held sway, there was a fair amount of consternation over being told what to do by Washington. The result was a list of educational guidelines agreed upon by many – but not all – of the states, known as the Common Core Curriculum. The Common Core essentially replaces the federal standards for states that adopt it.

Local education administrators note that there are some differences between the old program — which was tested in Maryland using the MSA, or Maryland School Assessment, exams — and the new Common Core program — whose testing regimen has yet to be devised.

This year in Harford County, even though students had been shifted to the Common Core, the MSA tests were administered anyway.

County schools, which, in aggregate, had been showing progress on the MSA test, not surprisingly stalled in the test's final round, even as various school system showings slipped statewide. It's worth noting that, even with the Common Core being taught and the MSA test being administered, students in Harford County still did well – on the whole – on the test. This is probably a reflection of the overall quality of education being pretty good all around, and the reality that, while there has been a relatively recent focus on having a basic standard high school education across the country, such a standard was largely in place all by itself.

Does that mean it makes sense to abandon both federal and Common Core-style national standards? That probably wouldn't be a good idea. The pressures on school systems to teach a variety of subjects is ever increasing, in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. Those pressures are likely to continue to be strong, and increasingly varied as the body of human knowledge increases. What isn't increasing is the amount of classroom time during the 12 grades before a child is expected to be world-ready.

As time goes on, having some sort of national standard for what basics need to be known upon graduating from high school will be as important as ever, but it will be almost impossible to have such a standard, if every state goes back to doing its own thing.

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