Tough diploma exams stir accolades and fears


Maryland's latest proposed high school graduation requirements would give new meaning to "accountability," a favorite education buzzword, with this ultimatum: Learn the right stuff, and prove it by passing the toughest statewide tests ever, or you get no diploma.

Throughout the Baltimore area yesterday, school officials welcomed the proposed "performance-based" tests that would be designed to measure what students need to know to succeed in jobs or college, beginning with ninth-graders in 1996.

But the enthusiasm for the idea is tempered by fears of higher dropout rates, students being forced to spend a fifth year in high school, and local school districts struggling to meet much higher expectations without more money or other help to do so.

The tests, proposed Tuesday in an advisory panel's report to the State Board of Education, would likely include advanced questions in subjects such as algebra, geometry, even world economics.

State education officials say that the emphasis on performance will prevent schools from awarding diplomas based primarily on classroom "seat time" and memorization of enough facts to pass traditional tests.

In Harford County, Jean R. Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teachers union, expressed ambivalence.

"I agree that students need more than just a basic level of competency," Ms. Thomas said. "But I have a problem when teachers are asked to do more and more without any additional support, either from the community or the school system."

In Howard County, Dana Hanna, school board chairman, praised the proposed tests.

While the tests could force some students to attend an extra year of school, Mr. Hanna said he sees the proposal as a way to allow some students to graduate early.

"It will allow children to pace their education at their ability," he said. "For some students, it will take a shorter time. For others, it will take a longer time. The concept of identifying what we can expect from our high school graduates, I think, would be a worthy pursuit."

Maryland is among about 30 states now developing statewide standards for setting and measuring academic achievement.

The format and exact content of the Maryland tests remain undetermined. But members of both the state school board and the advisory panel that it appointed eight months ago said that instituting the tests would create the toughest graduation requirements ever in Maryland and that schools would be forced to revamp instruction to prepare students. Local school boards would be charged with helping students who fell short of goals to meet the requirements.

State board members, who decided to allow 30 days for public comment before voting on the recommendations, praised the panel's work and expressed support for the performance-based tests.

Questions, based on state Department of Education goals, would focus on a wide array of topics and test critical thinking, writing, analysis and the ability to organize, instead of a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blanks approach.

A second set of tests, to begin by 1997, would measure students' ability to apply what they had learned to hypothetical problems, perhaps by putting together a portfolio or tape of their work.

Robert C. Embry Jr., the state school board president, called such testing an overdue measure of what students take away from schools with their diplomas. "The issue is they're passing these courses and getting the diplomas, but they don't have the knowledge, much less the ability, to apply it," Mr. Embry said.

He acknowledged that such tests could raise the dropout rate considerably but added, "You have to have something turn on standards in order to make kids take them seriously."

Some state school board members suggested that the state needs to impose tougher individual requirements before high school, where many youngsters arrive so far behind in basics that they never catch up. To try to improve accountability, the board is considering looking into adding a test that students would have to pass to go from middle school to high school, Mr. Embry said.

But Thomas Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said he doubted that the any such tests would improve students' education.

"If those students are sitting in classes each day," he said, "why aren't they learning the skills? Are we meeting that child's needs?"

In Baltimore, Phillip H. Farfel, school board president, said the city would have a much more difficult time preparing students for the tests than most districts, but he supported the idea nonetheless.

Along with imposing the rigorous standards, he said, the state needs to provide more money to Baltimore, where per-pupil spending ranks among the lowest in the state, to enable the city to reduce class sizes and to buy more supplies and modern teaching aids such as computers. "We face the greatest challenges, and we're not playing on a equal playing field with other districts," he said.

Unlike some others, Dr. Farfel said he doubted that the tests would result in more dropouts but instead force teachers to make school more interesting and challenging. "One could make the argument that by the time students drop out," he said, "it may be because they're bored and think school's irrelevant."

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