The Maryland State Board of Education sent a clear message yesterday to the approximately 9,000 high school seniors who haven't yet passed the standardized tests in algebra, English, American government and biology that are now mandatory for graduation: This train is leaving the station, so get on board if you want a diploma in June. That may be tough love, but seniors who get their act together and meet the requirement probably will look back one day and be glad educators made them toe the line.
In refusing to delay enforcing the graduation requirement, the board reaffirmed Maryland's commitment to make the tests a means for raising academic standards and holding schools accountable.
The most recent statistics compiled by the state Department of Education suggest that the situation for Maryland seniors, while serious, may not be as dire as once feared. Of the 9,000 students at risk of not graduating, about 4,000 are in that position because they haven't taken one or more of the tests; officials say that many, if not most, will meet the requirement by June. A majority of the remaining seniors are first-time test-takers with special needs or students who are not native English speakers. The department created a test to address their needs this year. The board also agreed to consider delaying enforcing the test requirement for them when it meets in December.
The state has made provisions to help students who fail a test more than once by providing an alternative path to a diploma. Students can complete a senior project in place of tests they can't pass; they also can earn a minimum combined score to make up for a test they fail. State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick also says she will allow seniors to appeal to the board for an exemption if they fail a test. These are all reasonable safeguards that leave room for principals and teachers to devise individualized classroom instruction, tutoring and other forms of extra help for seniors in difficulty. In many cases, schools will be asked to create detailed remediation plans for each at-risk student; that might involve a mix of one-on-one coaching, project supervision and after-school or Saturday activities. It's a mandate that puts school budgets under greater pressure because the state hasn't come up with new money to fund such initiatives. The burden will be especially heavy on schools in Baltimore city and Baltimore and Prince George's counties, where large populations of minority and disadvantaged students lag behind other jurisdictions on state standardized tests.
But the board's vote this week shows there's no turning back now. Schools are going to be held accountable for student achievement as measured by the tests, so they had better learn to do more with the dollars they have. That in itself would go a long way toward vindicating the faith Maryland has put in testing as a way of raising standards and ensuring that every child gets a quality education.