Schools fear cost, timing of new tests Rewriting curricula, retraining teachers among top concerns; Cost of Md. plan uncertain; Pilot exams are set to begin in 1999; will count by 2001


Officials in several Maryland school districts say it will be difficult to rewrite curricula, retrain teachers and buy new textbooks in four years to prepare for the state's ambitious new high school graduation standards announced this week.

Yesterday, these officials could not estimate the cost of Maryland's new plans to make diplomas more meaningful. However, they are worried about the scope and cost of the task: Pilot tests will begin in 1999, and the first tests to count toward graduation will be given in January 2001.

"It's admirable to set standards," said Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, "but what about the technical and financial help, to train and scrutinize and evaluate the performance of the adults who must implement this mandate? Those things should be part of the equation."

State school officials are seeking from the General Assembly a $1.7 million increase in their budget -- mostly to develop the 10 new final exams in five subject areas. At least $500,000 would be earmarked for training for school district teachers and staff, said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for community outreach.

"We're interested in the improvements they make: We'll help them with the process, but it's open for them to decide what changes in organization and curriculum and instruction they want to make," said Steven Ferrara, the state's chief for assessment.

At the local level, however, some educators worried that there wouldn't be enough money and that change as proposed would come too fast. Some warned that the achievement gap between haves and have-nots may widen rather than close if the tests are not carefully designed.

"My concern is that making it a requirement to get a diploma, you push down the level of the test to make it easier," said Stephen Hess, director of testing for Frederick County schools.

Since 1988, Frederick high school students have taken a test at the end of each course, and it counts for 20 percent of the final grade. A student could fail the test but still pass the course.

With any new test, fewer students pass it the first year than after teachers become familiar with it, said Gary Dunkleberger, assistant superintendent in Carroll County.

"That may sound like we're teaching the test, and while that sounds inappropriate, it isn't at all," he said. "If the test is on important stuff, then that's what instruction should be on also."

Anticipating the state's decision to change graduation standards by 2001, some school districts took first steps months ago. Some began the time-consuming process of evaluating the quality of their curricula and their high school teaching.

Baltimore City announced plans late last year for top-down restructuring of its high schools.

Baltimore County just completed a review of its teaching plans for every grade level, said Richard E. Bavaria, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"This costs a lot of money and we are doing it at a time when there isn't a lot of money available," Dr. Bavaria said.

"We don't know all the implications, but we do know that staff development is an essential part and we do know it's not cheap to provide it for a staff that ranges from rookies right out of college to veterans who have been teaching for 30 years," he said.

In Somerset County, one of the state's poorest, some students are having enough trouble passing the state's minimum competency tests now.

The new tests proposed are to be much more rigorous, and high school Principal Douglas Bloodsworth worries that some students will just forgo a diploma if they can't pass these new exams.

"I'm afraid that will happen," said Mr. Bloodsworth, principal of Washington High School in Princess Anne.

"When this comes into effect," he added, "we're really going to have to spend some money on curriculum development and assistance to the teacher."

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