WITH THE selection of new standardized tests, Maryland school officials last week ushered in the potential for a decade of education reform focusing on the child, not the school.
The new Maryland School Assessment holds the potential to resolve parents' decade-long frustration with the former testing program, which evaluated schools and asked whether children were being taught to state standards. To comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in January, the new tests will produce reports for parents that also detail what the students know, and how they are doing compared with others here and nationally.
But this fundamental change in the way Maryland student progress is measured and analyzed - and used to drive changes in instruction - means much more than its often-reported value as a parent-pleaser. It is the green light to larger reforms: Every educator from the state superintendent to the classroom teacher should be held accountable not just for a given year's scores, but for what they will do with test results that detail each child's strengths and weaknesses.
Planned changes in reading tests, for example, include individual student scores for phonics, vocabulary and comprehension - the basics that often were assumed but not emphasized by the problem-solving and critical-thinking format of the former Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
Testing for these will draw attention to the students' individual needs, and establish an expectation that teachers will then tailor their response to each student when the results come back.
To succeed, what has been dubbed the "second decade of school reform" will have to be the "decade of the individual student." It will require state and local school officials to do a far better job of spelling out the specific standards for each grade - what your child should learn. It will require that Maryland colleges that turn out teachers better equip their graduates to address the needs of different types of learners.
It will require that the new "voluntary curriculum" being developed by the state make more sense to parents than did MSPAP's "learning outcomes." It will require an investment in professional development for principals and teachers statewide, to learn how to unspool the data collected by the new tests and translate it into lesson plans. It will mean that school districts must pay greater attention to achievement gaps influenced by poverty.
So it's not the test. It's what schools do with it. And that's what Maryland and local school officials must be held accountable for in the coming months.