School testing pleases no one

The Baltimore Sun

Am I the only one in Maryland feeling a twinge of sympathy for state school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick?

Grasmick's taking heat for proposing that students who can't pass one or more of the high school assessments required for graduation be allowed to complete senior projects in lieu of the exams. Three months ago, Grasmick was telling me about the heat she was taking from parents because the tests were required for graduation.

Throughout the 1990s, many Maryland teachers groused about Grasmick's support of the MSPAP -- the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Her critics excoriated her in much the same tones the citizens of fictional Shinbone talked about Liberty Valance in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

And now, Gov. Martin O'Malley -- who is not known for his membership in the "Friends of Nancy Grasmick Club" -- has said he wants the state school superintendent to be appointed by the governor, not the state school board.

You can't please everyone, the saying goes. It would seem that Grasmick isn't pleasing anyone when it comes to the high school assessments. Not surprisingly, she doesn't see it that way.

"Some parents of special-needs students have told me about the tests 'this is the best thing that's ever happened to my child,'" Grasmick said Thursday.

Perhaps a rehash of what these annoying tests exactly are might be in order. Starting with the Class of 2009 -- this school year's unlucky juniors, who must be wondering why they were picked to get the booby prize -- students must pass tests in algebra, biology, English and government to graduate. According to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, scores of 412 in algebra, 400 in biology, 396 in English and 394 in government are considered proficient. The scoring range for each test is 240 to 650 points.

But students don't have to score at the proficient level to pass. The minimum score for passing the algebra test is 402 points; for biology it's 391 points; for English 386; points and for government 387 points. Those of you who are quick at math will note that all those minimum scores are closer to the 240 points at the bottom of the scale than the 650 at the top.

There is also a way for students to flunk one or more tests and still pass the battery of assessments without having to do a senior project. If their total score is 1,602 -- the sum of the proficient scores for each of the four tests -- they'll get a diploma. And remember, the maximum a student can score on all four tests is 2,600. Students are basically required to score a 62 for tests that are at the ninth- and 10th-grade levels.

Huh? A passing grade of 62. What is it O'Malley has against Grasmick again, exactly? Can this be the same O'Malley who vigorously defended Baltimore school system officials when they lowered the passing grade for city students from 70 to 60?

The passing requirements are at the low end of the point scale, not the top. So why the need to allow some students who've failed one or more tests and haven't scored a total of 1,602 on all four to complete senior projects instead? And, as has been hinted, did Grasmick "backtrack" or otherwise shift gears in her support of testing after learning that black students in suburban counties lag behind whites in passing the tests?

"I was inspired by the two-year study we did," Grasmick said, dismissing out of hand the notion that race was a factor in her decision. "[And] by the fact that there is a small cohort of students who need this alternative. I had a two-year task force looking at children because there is a small number of children who know the work but don't perform well on paper tests. Students with learning disabilities don't."

Grasmick repeatedly hammered home the phrase "small cohort," the better to emphasize her point that she's not talking about a large number of students who'll be permitted to complete senior projects.

"I felt this alternative was fair, and we would expect to see the number of students where this would apply to be diminished," Grasmick said.

Her commitment to having the vast majority of students pass high school assessments hasn't abated. Those who disparage such "high-stakes" tests -- and Grasmick -- might want to ponder that college-bound students will face even "higher-stakes" tests somewhere along the line: law school and medical school admissions tests, and bar exams, for instance. I hear the test to become a certified public accountant is no day at the beach. I can tell you from personal experience that the actuarial exam is a real humdinger.

Compared to any of those, Maryland's high school assessments are a snap.

"We're imposing a cruel hoax on our students if we don't give them a fundamental education," Grasmick said.

She could have added that, if anything, Maryland's testing standards should really be higher.

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