Today, the Maryland State of Board of Education meets to consider whether to delay a long-anticipated plan to make the statewide High School Assessment tests a requirement for a diploma. Critics of the rule say it's unfair to students who for one reason or another don't test well but who otherwise meet all the requirements for graduation. Proponents argue the tests are essential for raising academic standards and turning out better-prepared graduates for college and the workplace. But the evidence on both sides is at best inconclusive. It would be a mistake for the board to rush to judgment either way based on an incomplete understanding of the facts.
The HSA has been around since 2000, but this is the first year the tests will become a requirement for graduation, and some fear they will prevent many students from earning a diploma. Last year, before the rule went into effect, about 1,500 of Baltimore's 4,000 high school seniors didn't pass one or more of the four exams in English, math, history and biology - even though they earned enough credits to graduate. Critics of the requirement argue it would be counterproductive and unfair to deny diplomas to their counterparts this year solely because of test scores.
Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso has defended the tests as a way of raising standards. But he also has supported state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's view that students who have trouble with the tests should be able to complete a senior project as an alternative. The system ought to be flexible enough to allow students to earn a diploma either way. A breakdown of this year's seniors compiled by the state and scheduled for release today is expected to show exactly how many students have passed the tests, how many plan to retake them and how many are working on alternate projects.
Rather than panic at the prospect of thousands of seniors failing to graduate or bulling ahead on the assumption that higher scores automatically mean more-qualified graduates, the board should consider deferring any action until later, possibly at its December meeting, when it and the public will have a better idea of what share of this senior crop is passing the tests or choosing projects and how many are in danger of missing a diploma. If the evidence indicates the potential consequences of failure are too devastating, the law should be adjusted. What's needed is a steady hand on the tiller until all the facts are in.