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High stakes

IT'S TIME for the long, hard look in the mirror, Maryland.

Yesterday's news confirmed long-held fears about who might fail if end-of-course exams are used to determine who earns a high school diploma. State school officials set a passing bar for tests Tuesday, after considering what happens when it is applied to tests taken by high-schoolers in 2002: About half of all students failed in at least one of the four subject areas. A staggering percentage of black students failed all four tests - English, biology, algebra and government. Ninety percent of special education students - and 90 percent of non-English speakers - failed the English test. And 70 percent of poor children failed three of the four tests.

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The outcome raises many more questions than it answers, as it delivers a knockout punch to any notion that tying the tests to diplomas could be apolitical. Not the least of the questions is this: How much failure is acceptable?

Certainly not this much (wisely, the state school board agrees and has again postponed deciding whether and how to use the tests to determine who graduates). Ideally, there'd be none.

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If one believes, first of all, that after 10 years of debate and development, the High School Assessment is about as tough as it should be - and it is said to be rather basic, not like college-prep level work - and second, if the scoring system is about as fair as it can be, then the options left to Maryland school systems and parents are limited. Dumbing down the tests likely would render them worthless. Tinkering with score calibrations to allow more kids to pass is equally unappealing.

It looks more and more like the so-called voluntary curriculum that state educators have been drafting for months and plan to make public next week is voluntary in name only.

For many years, individual school districts - and in some systems, individual schools - established their own learning goals and resisted the idea of state dictates.

But unless schools teach from the new curriculum, or one of equal or greater rigor and specificity, improvement on the statewide tests just doesn't seem likely. Classroom by classroom, district by district - especially in those where the results of statewide tests for high schools and lower grades have in the last week confirmed weaknesses - an evaluation of what is being taught and whether it resembles what is being tested is in order.

It is time to establish and deploy a statewide task force on the education of black students, to draw on the best national research on teaching methods and cultural issues. Likewise, the State Department of Education must now take this data on the struggles of special education, poor and non-English-speaking students and step up efforts to target schools where they are concentrated. These are not wheels to reinvent district by district: These are Maryland's problem, and a threat to the very dream that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered 40 years ago today if they go unaddressed.

The dismal high school exam results followed by only days the news of persistent low performance by the same demographic groups in the lower grades. We agree with a state school official who characterized these pieces of news as "two sledgehammers."


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