The STATE BOARD of Education took one step into a minefield Tuesday when it set the passing rate for Maryland's new high school end-of-course exams.
But with trepidation, the board delayed a second crucial step: requiring students to pass the tests to graduate. Little wonder. Had it applied the scoring standards to the 61,000 students who took each of the tests last year, most African-Americans, Hispanics, students in special education and students learning English as a second language would have been denied diplomas. And high school dropout rates, already too high in places like Baltimore City and Prince George's County, no doubt would have spiked.
The problem facing Maryland and 18 other states with high school exit exams is this: Do you set the standards high and deny graduation to thousands, or do you go Georgia's route with a bar set so low that nearly everyone passes? Or is there a tolerable middle ground?
"There's no doubt that high school academic demands are higher in Maryland and many other states than they were 20 years ago," says John F. "Jack" Jennings, who heads the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that monitors state testing. "Kids are learning more, but there's a downside. There's more than one downside. It seems to be a case of policy-makers wanting to solve their problems through mandatory testing."
There's a temptation to dismiss the new High School Assessment as another example of testing run amok, especially in light of the weekly - or so it seems -unhappy news about testing in elementary and middle school. But just as high school kids are different from their younger siblings, so high school testing is different. And it raises different ethical, political, racial and legal questions.
"With the high school exit exam, there's no penalty to the school," Jennings notes. Yet many, if not most, of the 52 percent of Maryland high schoolers who failed the algebra test last year had been passed along from grade to grade. What moral and legal obligations does public education have to these students, especially when failure to earn a diploma makes a significant difference in lifetime earnings - estimated at nearly $1 million over 40 years? Here's a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Certainly, an obligation exists to offer remediation: smaller classes, tutoring, after-school activities. But high school remediation is extremely expensive, and many students would just as soon drop out. Many of those who stick around long enough to earn the diploma end up in community-college remedial courses, which in Maryland are bursting at the seams.
"We ignored high school too long, and we ignored these students too long," says Keith Gayler, associate director of the policy center, who recently completed a study of the states with exit exams.
The study found that states denying diplomas on the basis of test scores tend to be those with large numbers of minority students. These states, such as Massachusetts, circle the mostly white interior of the country like a girdle. (Gayler estimates that by 2008, eight of every 10 minority students in public schools will be in states with exit tests.)
It's no surprise to Gayler that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is at the forefront of organizations protesting in Florida, a state with an unusually high number of failures.
Maryland isn't the only state with glaring disparities on high school tests. In 12 others where scores are "disaggregated" - broken down by demographic group - African-American, Hispanic, poor and disabled students and students learning English as a second language have significantly lower pass rates than their white counterparts, Gayler's study says.
Forget the decade-long rise and fall of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and the much-publicized transition to Maryland School Assessment in lower grades. Maryland is a Johnny-come-lately to high school testing and reform. New York has had examinations for decades, but MSPAP reached only to the eighth grade.
Now the heavy scrutiny is of the high school curriculum. In the late 1990s, the state developed "core learning goals" for the upper grades, and the new tests in algebra, biology, English and government were carefully aligned with the curriculum. (The functional tests, which are so easy that students are rarely denied diplomas, will be retired after this school year.)
Jennings says that one result of the exit exam movement is a narrowing of the high school curriculum "because what's tested is what always will be taught. American high schools in general have too many options, too many electives, and far too many graduates are unprepared for college."
Some states address the problem with a second tier of diplomas often called "certificates of completion." But they aren't the real thing, and not trusted by employers and many dispensers of college student aid.
Maryland's High School Assessment was constructed under rules of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that all of the demographic subgroups - from American Indians to students eligible for free lunches - make "adequate yearly progress" until everyone passes in 2013.
Critic Gerald W. Bracey, an education researcher and professor at James Madison University in Virginia, calls the act a "weapon of mass destruction" designed to undermine public education and replace it with private, for-profit schooling.
The intent of the act, says Bracey, "is to increase parental anxiety." There's growing anxiety around Maryland's high school tests already. If the state board takes the second step, linking the new high school tests to graduation without addressing the glaring disparities, there'll be anxiety to spare.
Here are questions from the 2002 High School Assessment test given to Maryland students.
Algebra / Data Analysis
Lydia has $200 in her bank account at the beginning of the year. Each month, she deposits $40 into her account. She does not withdraw any money from her account and the account pays no interest. Which of these equations could Lydia use to find the total amount (T) in her bank account at the end of m months?
A. T = 40m
B. T = 240m
C. T = 200m + 40
D. T = 40m + 200
Which of these is a power shared by the federal and state governments?
A. enforcing laws
B. raising armies
C. conducting local elections
D. establishing post offices
Read this sentence from the passage:
Forcibly she walked up the seven long, hilly blocks from our home to school, deposing out defiant tearful faces before the stern pricipal.
The author uses the word forcibly to suggest the mother's
The major role of carbohydrates in the human diet is to
A. form cell membranes
B. catalyze cellular reactions
C. supply energy for the body
D. provide building blocks for proteins
Algebra: D / Government: A
English: B / Biology: C