Should the Maryland State Board of Education require every public school student, beginning with the current class of 12th-graders, to pass four end-of-course exams - the High School Assessments - to graduate from high school? As they reopen deliberations on this question without the benefit of current data, the new board should be guided by the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm."
There is general agreement that high school graduates should be better prepared for employment and higher education; there is also a consensus that taxpayers deserve to know the effectiveness of Maryland's public schools. On the other hand, a young person is significantly better off earning a high school diploma than not, and so is the state; a study this year by the Maryland Public Policy Institute found that each class of dropouts costs Maryland $42 million every year.
The challenging question that continues to confront the school board is ascertaining whether the high-stakes HSA, as implemented, contributes to these goals or will do irreparable harm to some significant number of students (largely minorities, English language learners and special-education students) while producing no offsetting benefit.
I urge board members to press for satisfactory answers to several questions before they cast their votes.
First, precisely what is it that the state is trying to accomplish with these tests? It is important to distinguish school accountability from student accountability. The federal No Child Left Behind law does not require that students pass any particular test in order to graduate. If the objective is increased school accountability, one can use the test results without punishing students. Maryland students in grades three to eight, for example, take Maryland State Assessment (MSA) tests but are not denied promotion if they fail to reach proficiency on a test.
If the goal of these tests is to increase employability or postsecondary education success, the state board should resist being satisfied with rhetoric about 21st-century jobs and increased college attendance. The board should ask for evidence that such an additional graduation requirement positively affects these outcomes in Maryland or any other state. Also, if there are to be high school tests, should nationally recognized tests such as the SAT or the College Board's Accuplacer placement tests be used?
Second, will these tests, as configured, increase the achievement of our students? How valid are the tests if they can be easily manipulated by the state? The state board and others have raised questions about the rationale and rigor of the hastily established Bridge Plan that offers completing senior projects as an alternative to passing the HSA, and other testing alternatives.
Third, what are the unintended consequences of the HSA? Are these tests limiting or "dumbing down" the curriculum in the courses tested? Are high schools delaying courses that were intended to be ninth- and 10th-grade courses until 11th and 12th grades in order to improve the HSA pass rate? Are the HSAs also crowding out electives such as career and technology education coursework?
Fourth, what is the precise annual cost of these tests to the state and to individual school districts? What is the cost to school districts of remediation for students who fail to pass one or more of the tests?
Finally, how will the proposed graduation requirement affect the high school completion and dropout rate? In a recent study of state high school exit exams (1971-2004), Eric S. Grodsky, John Robert Warren and Demetra Kalogrides found that they lowered graduation rates yet had no discernible impact upon reading or math achievement.
All of these questions become particularly difficult to answer when the state has yet to release last spring's HSA data that will determine the status of current 12th-grade students.
I urge the board at its Oct. 28 meeting to hear testimony from the public before discussing the HSA. I also recommend that the board consider alternatives, including keeping the High School Assessment in place as a school accountability mechanism but limiting the consequences for students. It is possible to hold students accountable, for example, by including the HSA score as a portion of the course grade.
At the least, I urge the board to seek answers to these questions and inform the public, even if it means delaying the graduation requirement.
Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation and former president of the Maryland State Board of Education. His e-mail is