Let's have it straight from the shoulder. I'm a failure. State School Superintendent Joseph Shilling says so, and who am I to argue? Yes,those Maryland Functional Citizenship Test scores just did me in.

As part of the Maryland Schools Performance Program package, the state insists that four functional tests -- reading, writing, math and citizenship -- be passed en route to a high school diploma. For schoolsystems that fail to maintain a satisfactory rate of passage among their ninth-graders, the specter of a takeover by state remediation experts looms in the distance.

County schools are not, shall we say, breaking the bank on these indicators. In fact, our ninth-grade scores weigh in below the state's "satisfactory" percentages on all four tests.

As a social studies teacher, my bailiwick is the Functional Citizenship Test, the exam which has proved to be the most difficult for our students to pass. The county's ninth-grade passing rate is 70.4 percent. The state mandates an 85 percent figure.

In the January testing, my students went35 for 47. In my upper-level class, 32 of 34 passed. But in the lessadvanced group, only 3 of 13 got over the hump, for a combined batting average of .774 -- better than the county average, but no cigar when it comes to the state. Unsatisfactory.

Say it ain't so, Joe.

Why is citizenship so problematic for many students? I suspect it'sbecause it is the one content exam among the four. Reading, writing and math are skill-oriented tests. If you can read and write reasonably well, those functional tests are pretty easy. Adding, subtracting and doing fractions are skills too.

But "Citizenship" is out-and-out information, not skill. How long is the governor's term? What doeseminent domain mean? Students find this difficult to master.

While Anne Arundel County flirts with a satisfactory passing rate on the reading test, we're about 10 percentage points below satisfactory in math and writing. Citizenship brings up the rear.

All of which explains why nobody is smiling.

The state shakes its head ominously in the direction of the county. The media howl,especially our brethrenover on Capital Drive who never met a simplistically strident editorial headline they didn't like. In response, every teacher-tweaking twit who owns a pen waxes eloquently on the Op-Ed page: "Yeah, and theyonly work nine months a year, blah, blah, blah."

The Board of Education, in the time-honored tradition of bureaucracies everywhere, reacts to the heat by firing off memos to teachers ("Forget course content! Teach to the test!") and to the individual school administrations ("Do something!").

Principals assemble their teachers and conveythe message. "Folks, we've gotta do something."

The message delivered, we dutifully return to our classrooms and say, "Kids, we've gotta do something. Let's pass this sucker."

The problem is a lot of ninth-graders would just as soon pass a kidney stone as pass these tests. The more advanced kids (32 of 34, remember?) sense the significance of getting it over with, but the less scholarly are more difficult to reach.

With last semester's group (3 of 13, remember?), therewere work sheets, drills, Jeopardy games, crossword puzzles, one-on-one sessions, pep talks, extra-credit incentives, doughnut and pizza rewards and a lot of other things that I can't remember.

I even flirted with the idea of using the kids in the class who had already passed the test to help tutor the rest. (Yup. They were all mixed together.) But when one of my prospective "teachers" surveyed the room oneday and said, "Man, I'm glad I don't have to do this bull---- any more," I thought better of the idea.

I wasn't crazy about his language, but it was hard to get mad at him. The truth is that the luxury of making that comment is really the No. 1 reason for passing

the test in the first place.

Soon it all comes around again. The test is due to be repeated at the end of this month. Time for teachers to learn from past mistakes as well as stock up on ditto fluid, doughnuts, pizza and Jeopardy questions. I may even have another go at my "Citizenship Rap," which "graced" these pages back in December.

I believe strongly that students should know this material, don't get me wrong. And it's up to me to teach it to them as best I can. But as we enter the spring functional testing season, I'd like to make a request of you, the reader.

Please don't be taken in by the apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding functional testing. God knows we have our problems, but Armageddon is not nearly as imminent as all this number-crunching would have you believe.

You see, all these failure and passing rates are drawn exclusively from the ninth-grade population. They're evaluating the worth of our schools on the basis of how freshmen doon these tests. I find this incomprehensible.

Our kids go to elementary school for five years. They spend the next five years in middle school and junior high. Then they show up in my school for 3 1/2 months and it's the high school that catches hell because the ninth-graders aren't prepared. What unmitigated nonsense.

What happens is this. Kids dilly, dally and dawdle, secure in the knowledge they can fail citizenship or math five, six or seven times and still pass it intime to hand out graduation announcements, walk across the stage at the Capital Centre and hang their tassels on their rear-view mirrors.You see, folks, virtually everybody passes these tests; they just don't bother to do it in the ninth grade.

Try these numbers. There are 348 members of the Annapolis High graduating class of 1991.Three hundred forty-three (98.5 percent) have passed the citizenship test, 345 have passed the math test (99.1 percent) and all 348 have passed the reading test (that's 100 percent, for those of you who might have had problems on your own Functional Math Test). We don't have the writing test data yet, but you get the idea. Sooner or later, just abouteverybody comes around.

Do we need to work harder to make underclassmen "see the light" earlier? Most assuredly.

But are we hangingover the abyss, in desperate need of state intervention to rescue us? Get serious.

The state superintendent may see himself as the hero in this public education morality play, but in the end, the title of the piece is "Much Ado About Nothing."

Meanwhile, the board, itsprincipals, teachers and students

-- to say nothing of taxpayers -- are forced to jump through hoops because the state believes that ninth-graders alone reveal the efficacy of our educational process.

The first step in a successful proctological exam of a horse is locating the business end of the horse. Perhaps education in Maryland would be better-served if Joseph Shilling fired his test designers and added a couple of veterinarians to his staff.

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