The Maryland state board of education's decision this week to replace the English and Algebra I High School Assessments with new tests tied to the Common Core curriculum predictably has sparked complaints that educators are moving too quickly to adopt the more rigorous standard. But we've known all along the transition would be difficult for some students, especially those in high school who will need to pass the new tests in order to graduate. That's why state officials are already planning to make adjustments in how the tests are scored and to continue offering students alternative ways of meeting the high school graduation requirement. Given those safeguards, there's no reason to delay implementing the higher standards.
There's no question the new standards are better than the ones they replace. The Common Core standards in English stress the development of critical thinking skills and accelerated instruction in reading from the earliest grades so that students can tackle more challenging material than they do now and benefit from the knowledge they gain earlier in their school careers. In math, the goal is to teach children to think creatively about mathematical operations and concepts rather than rely on rote memorization so that they not only can get the "right" answer to a problem but also explain in a logical way why the results they come up with are correct.
We recognize that the changeover to the more rigorous standards in the new High School Assessments will be easier for students who are now in the elementary and middle school grades than for those already in high school. Ninth- and 10th-graders taking the test this fall will be expected to pass an exam that is based on content that may differ in some ways from the course materials they were taught. Critics say that mismatch could lead to an increase in the number of students who fail the test.
Perhaps in an ideal world it would be possible to phase in the new high school exam in a way that ensured every student taking the test already had gone through elementary and middle school programs keyed to the higher standards. But doing that would require the state to slow the roll-out of Common Core to just one grade a year — a process that would take 13 years to complete and wouldn't be fully implemented until 2027. Meanwhile, most of the children currently enrolled in the state's public schools would never see any benefit at all from the change.
It is unlikely that the higher standards will significantly affect the state's high school graduation rate, even if more students fail to pass the new exam. For several years the state has allowed students who failed the old High School Assessment exam to complete a senior project instead to earn equivalent credits toward graduation. If more students need to take advantage of that alternative because of the switch to higher standards, we expect the state board will do whatever is necessary to help ensure they earn their diplomas.
Moreover, it is not as if the current iteration of the HSA has proved much of a challenge. About 90 percent of the Class of 2013 — the most recent for which data are available — passed the exams. Factoring in so-called bridge projects, a total of 12 students state-wide were prevented from graduating because of the HSAs in the first four years they were required, and 11 of those were in the first year.
Maryland has long been a leader in education because it has embraced reform and because lawmakers and educators have worked hard together to continually raise academic standards and the quality classroom instruction in its schools. There are always risks when change is involved, but the state can't afford to stand still if it is to produce the well-educated workforce it will need to compete successfully in the 21st-century global marketplace. The changeover to Common Core represents a very small risk compared to the benefits it promises, and now is as good a time as any to put it to work for Maryland's children.
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