The state Board of Education endorsed yesterday a plan to boost public high schools' academic standards by the year 1998 and to reinforce the changes with a series of new exams required for graduation.
Members of the class of 2002 will not earn diplomas unless they pass about 10 universal "final exams" -- or prove by alternative means that they have mastered math, science, English and social studies, a school standards task force proposes.
Tentative standards for Maryland's nearly 204,000 high school students, unveiled yesterday, will form the basic building blocks for the future exams.
In draft form, the standards are expected to provide fodder for passionate debate in school communities. Teachers, parents and students statewide will be invited to size up the content -- proposed "learning goals" in each major academic subject area and in "interpersonal skills," such as responsibility and respect for others rights and opinions.
As the proposal is refined into policy over the next year, local school boards and politicians will likely argue over issues of cost, content and control over curriculum -- and over what to do with students who fail.
The board voted yesterday to start the public discussion by distributing the proposed standards for review to teachers at all 200 Maryland high schools in the fall.
Currently, to graduate, a high school student needs 21 credits of course work and must pass the four Maryland Functional Tests.
The functional exams measure a student's basic skills in reading, math, writing and citizenship. But the tests, written on a middle ,, school level, are offered as early as seventh grade and are passed by many students well before they enter high school.
"I think many students have the perception, 'I'm done. I passed the Maryland Functional Tests, so why do I need this class? I can sit here and coast, and I'll graduate,' " said Tracy M. Tucker, a Charles County high school senior and member of the state school board.
Meant to spark curriculum changes in local school systems, the proposed standards are based not just on what a high school graduate should know, but on what the graduate should be able to do with that knowledge, said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
In social studies, for example, students will be asked to go beyond memorization of facts and dates. They will be asked, among other things, to "evaluate the U.S. as a multicultural society and compare it to other world states" and to "analyze historic documents to determine the basic principles of United States government and apply them to real-world situations."
In addition, the task force proposed that high school students receive instruction in critical thinking, job-readiness and use of technologies -- billed as skills needed for life after high school.
Students would not be expected to take a specific class in these thinking and learning skills. But high schools would be required to include them throughout lessons in every academic subject area, said Katharine M. Oliver, co-chairwoman of a standards subcommittee that polled business and college leaders about skills graduates need. Ms. Oliver is assistant state superintendent for career and technology education.
The new exams would eventually replace the Maryland Functional Tests, which have been required for graduation since 1984. A separate task force has proposed making the functional writing, reading and math tests into middle school exams, but not requiring them for passage to high school -- or to a diploma.
Launched nearly two decades ago, these were designed to ensure that Maryland students graduated with some minimum knowledge, said Robert E. Gabrys, assistant state superintendent for research and development and coordinator of the high school task force.
The new plan is very preliminary, evolved from more than two years of study that has yet to resolve how the state and local districts will handle failures.
Currently, students take the Maryland Functional Tests until successful -- "We literally have students who have taken the test 10 times before passing," Dr. Gabrys said.
But the new tests would never be offered as a year-end, do-or-die ticket to graduation, the task force proposed. It recommends that students take the new tests only once, immediately after finishing course work in those subjects during ninth to 11th grades. It recommended administering two tests in math, three in English, two in science and three in social studies.
The task force recommends that local school districts devise plans for their students who do not pass the tests, to ensure that they achieve the state learning goals. The state, it suggests, would review those plans. But many board members and some local educators say that is not sufficient -- and looks wishy-washy.
"What if a youngster doesn't pass?" asked Brian Lockard, Carroll County superintendent of schools, who generally praised the plan but warned that it needs refinement. "The message that some people may hear is that . . . they still will graduate. That's going to be a difficult issue to resolve."
The proposed reforms are expected to meet resistance for their content as well as their cost -- an estimated $800,000 for test design and scoring, and another $600,000 for teacher and staff training over three years.
"Staff development is the first thing politicians cut from school budgets," said new state board member Adrienne L. Ottaviani, a former Allegany County commissioner.
Also, the emphasis placed on nonacademic skills is expected to irk conservative groups and communities that oppose government-mandated instruction in values and classroom discussion about personal values.
Ms. Oliver said her subcommittee is not "telling students what to think, but how to think. We are not teaching values." Its emphasis, she said, is ensuring that students leave high school with interpersonal and analytical skills needed to thrive as team members in fast-changing industries. Those skills include respect for others' views and cultures, she said.