State should pay for grad test plan


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- After much debate, the Maryland State Board of Education took a bold step last week by voting to move ahead with its long-planned High School Assessment program. This action continues more than a decade of Maryland's school reform leadership aimed at higher standards and strong accountability for students and educators.

The board's decision, however, came only after months of passionate debate about whether a rigorous assessment program is needed and whether the state's K-12 school system and students were prepared for a test with high-stakes consequences. The board decided that it was time to go ahead with the tests but to delay the high stakes for a couple of years.

Its conclusion: More preparation is needed before failing performance should cause a student to lose the right to graduate from high school.

Board members were not speaking in abstractions or casually delaying a time of reckoning. They have a plan that they approved in October. They want to see it funded and implemented so that every child has the chance to pass the crucial tests. The delay of high stakes consequences allows time for the board to push for full funding and implementation. Thus far, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has provided only about a quarter of the plan's cost.

That comprehensive plan for interventions and support is entitled "Every Child Achieving: A Plan for Meeting the Needs of the Individual Learner." Simply referred to as the "Academic Intervention Plan," it was prepared for the State Department of Education with the advice of a broad-based steering committee and the support of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform. I was fortunate to participate on this committee, whose plan would make Maryland the first state in the nation to guarantee every child a genuine "opportunity to learn" and a fair chance to meet the state's ambitious learning standards.

The board not only declared that the strategies described in the plan would become state policy, but it committed the state to full implementation, stating that the intervention strategies were an essential precondition of any high stakes testing system.

This is a courageous and unique position.

What makes Maryland's initiative courageous and unique is that it goes a step beyond what other states have chosen to do. Most states have declared a set of standards, developed assessment and accountability systems and then stepped back to see what local school systems could do.

Maryland's board said standards, assessment and accountability were necessary components, but not sufficient supports to generate the desired levels of student achievement. Maryland said that both the state and local districts need to do more.

For students to succeed, Maryland's board said that each student's progress must be individually monitored, parents must be fully included in the educational process and remedial help must be immediately provided whenever a student slips behind. In fact, all school systems would be required to hold summer school for eighth-graders who were below standard.

In addition, the board called for significant policy changes, investments and incentives to increase the effectiveness of teachers, teaching and leadership in Maryland's schools.

Finally, the board called for substantial upgrading of the state's early childhood education programs coupled with a set of initiatives aimed at enhancing parental involvement in the early childhood years.

Maryland's plan, now a model for other states, is a bold statement of what it takes to finish the job of boosting the achievement of all students.

Naturally, such a declaration raises the question of when and how the resources will be supplied to guarantee that opportunity to learn. These are questions with which the state's top leadership must grapple as policy and spending priorities are determined.

However, the board correctly stands up for children by asserting that unless and until a fair opportunity to learn is provided to each and every child then there should be no discussion of punishing consequences for those children.

The board is underlining one of the cardinal principles of standards-based reform, "adults first," which is to say that before holding children accountable for learning, the adults in a society, policy-makers, taxpayers, parents and educators must be held accountable for providing a quality of education that is equal to the standards and adaptable to the learning needs of each child.

Bravo to Maryland for setting a school reform standard for the nation.

S. Paul Reville is the executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-based Reform and a faculty member at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

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