With lofty goals but no reliable road map, Maryland is about to become a test case for the nation with its new requirement that high school students pass college-prep level exams before receiving a diploma.
"I think other states are going to follow suit," said Susan Fuhrman, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. "But it will be interesting to see whether Maryland can withstand the pressures to make it a low-level exam."
If the optimists are correct, the state will lead the United States into a league with most of the rest of the industrialized world, where high school exit exams are the norm and are linked to higher student achievement, according to recent studies.
If skeptics prove wiser, the state can expect years of legal contests, mayhem in schools as they scramble to adjust their ways, masses of children held back and an outcry from parents about low graduation rates.
In the initial years, Maryland school officials expect as many as half of the students to fail at least some of the 10 tests to be required in five subjects, but they expect the failure rate to drop to 25 percent after several years.
In any case, the action this week by the state Board of Education will make Maryland students subjects in a giant experiment that proponents hope will transcend public education's typical reluctance to change and pave the way for a highly educated citizenry.
The board voted to administer the first tests in January 2001.
In 1993-1994, high school students in 18 states were required to pass exams to graduate, according to a survey. But in most cases the tests are pegged as low as middle school level, as is a test Maryland requires for graduation.
New York's regents exams also test at the college-preparatory level, but fewer than half of that state's students take the exams; the rest can graduate with a less illustrious diploma.
The United States is among a handful of industrialized countries that don't require national exit exams to graduate. With its historical fixation on state's rights and home rule, the nation has long frowned upon top-down rules governing what children should know.
But with the late 1970s came a growing realization that graduates were entering jobs without knowing how to fill out applications or write letters. The response was minimum-skills tests required for graduation.
"At the time, it was revolutionary to impose any standards on schools and teachers," said Steven Ferrara, chief of the Maryland Department of Education's testing branch.
Now, as U.S. students lag behind their counterparts in other industrialized countries and jobs are lost as a result, pressure is on for what some educators call the second revolution, the attempt to raise expectations.
Comparisons among students in countries with and without exit exams indicate that Maryland could be on the road to higher achievement if the program is set up correctly. Recent studies of 13-year-olds in 20 industrialized countries indicate that exit exams improve student performance, especially in math and science.
Researchers found that children who knew they had to pass a rigorous standardized test in four years, at age 17, tested 1 1/2 grade levels higher in math than those who knew they would not have to take a test; they tested a third of a grade level higher in science.
In Canadian provinces that require exit tests, students were 80 percent of a grade level ahead of their peers in provinces with no exit exams in math and two-thirds of a grade level ahead in science.
In Sweden, tests scores declined after the nation discontinued its exit exams in the 1970s.
Canadian provinces with exit exams also showed superior methods of teaching. Schools there were more likely to use science experiments, assign more homework, give more quizzes and schedule more time for math and science instruction.
"Classes pressure teachers to go easy by the way they react," said John Bishop, chairman of the Human Resource Studies Department at Cornell University, who conducted the studies.
"There's this treaty that gets negotiated implicitly between a teacher and the students, because the teacher can't fail everybody. When there's this external exam, it's up to an outside group and the teachers and students get together and say, 'Hey, we've got to beat this test.' The teacher becomes less of an ogre and becomes part of the means by which the student achieves his goal."
But the United States is not Canada or Finland. Its diversity, tradition of individual rights and reluctance to close doors on students' academic futures could make Maryland's program an unprecedented battleground.
Nearly every state that has a required high school graduation test has faced court challenges. Experts who follow the issue say the tests have been upheld in each case, but most often only after protracted court fights.
Florida, the first state to require a basic-skills test in 1978, originally pegged its test at a middle school level with the intention of raising the degree of difficulty as teaching and learning improved.
Those intentions got a cold shower in 1979, when a group of black students who had previously attended segregated schools sued the state, claiming they had received an inferior education and were not prepared for the tests.
The court eventually upheld the test but wouldn't let the state deny a diploma during the four years the case was tied up in court.
"The problem Maryland is going to face is they have to give advance warning," said Thomas H. Fisher, director of testing programs at the Florida Department of Education. "And that consists not only of a public pronouncement, but the word has to filter into the public schools."