No substitute for learning

The Baltimore Sun

It took guts to put together the plan for the Maryland High School Assessments, under which high school students will be required to pass exams in algebra, English, American government and biology in order to graduate. Even though the tests are only at the eighth- and ninth-grade levels, implementing this plan would give a Maryland high school diploma real meaning.

Unfortunately, Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's schools superintendent, and some other administrators want to back away. They don't want others to have negative feelings about them. They want to be praised both for having standards and for having compassion for those who can't meet the standards. They are fearful they will be accused of unfairly preventing some students from graduating.

And so they've come up with an alternative. The failing student doesn't have to fail. The student who has flunked one or more of the four tests can do a "senior project."

The assumption is that some students know their subjects but are just not able to pass a test. Therefore, to be fair, a way has to be provided to get around this obstacle.

In fact, there are very, very few students who could not pass the tests if they made a genuine effort to prepare for them. This means making the effort not for a week or two before the tests but during the years before the tests.

But the worst part of the plan for an alternative is the totally unrealistic assumption that students who cannot pass the tests would be able to do a worthwhile senior project.

Consider Ms. Grasmick's words about what such a project would be like. The project would have to be "rigorous and substantive" and "reflect mastery of the material. ... We are talking about rigor, not book reports."

In other words, according to Ms. Grasmick, the student who can't pass - merely pass - the tests is going to have the intellectual wherewithal to put together something "rigorous and substantive." Can she be serious?

Her words imply that the student taking the alternative route not only is able to read at grade level but also can read critically, has some awareness of the context of the subject matter, has the persistence to delve deeper into the subject week after week, and is capable of making sound intellectual judgments. But if "alternative" students had such abilities, they would not have had difficulty in passing the tests. If they had come to school for learning and not for play, passing the tests would not be much of a challenge.

Let's suppose that some students are allowed the alternative of a "project," and they have the right state of mind. They attend all classes and meetings and put in lots of time working by themselves. But the final product contains numerous incorrect statements, shows very limited understanding of what words in books mean and how they are spelled, and has few sentences without grammatical errors or paragraphs that are coherent. In other words, the senior project, if concluded, very likely will bear out the results of the assessment tests: Through 11 years of schooling, the student has learned little. And it is not the fault of teachers or a decrepit building.

What then? Time and effort have been put in, and the pressure to pass such a student will be great. Shouldn't the student have some reward? Most teachers, I'm afraid, would cave and give their approval to a project that has turned out to be unsubstantive and without rigor.

That does not seem to be happening in California, which requires the passing of an exit exam in reading, writing and math. Last October, its superintendent of schools, Jack O'Connell, wrote to all of California's county and district superintendents and said the state's new exit exam is "working as intended, and students across the state are meeting higher expectations as a result of the exam."

California has no alternative senior project. Instead, California students who fail one or more of the tests are offered many opportunities to learn what they didn't know and take the exam again (and again, if necessary). But to get a diploma, they must pass the exam.

Paul Marx, a Towson resident, is professor emeritus at the University of New Haven, where he taught English for 33 years. His e-mail is

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad