Maryland's High School Assessment Is a Double-Edged Sword

(By Julie Zhu -- Montgomery Blair High School)
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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

Montgomery Blair High School is home to the highly regarded Montgomery County public schools' Math, Science, and Computer Science Magnet program, and the well-regarded Communication Arts Program. Despite the presence of these programs for high-achieving students, Blair found itself on the state list of failing schools because of its poor performance on the state High School Assessment test.

How is Blair fixing its problem? Tenth-grade English has become focused on HSA test prep. A practice exam was provided to the entire 10th grade before Thanksgiving vacation, with plans to continue HSA practice for English and math throughout the school year.

I've received different reports from students and administrators concerning the instructions given to students and the use of the exam results. Students say instructions indicated that the exams would be graded and results used for placement, with threats that students might be placed in remedial English, etc., for poor performance. The Blair administration and the school system deny that there are such instructions but have provided internally contradictory information.

Darryl Williams, the principal, said that multiple-choice questions are not averaged in the marking-period grade but that the essay questions are "since teachers continue to teach writing all year." Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, however, said, "HSA results have no relevance beyond the narrow purpose of measuring baseline content knowledge."

Even the state of Maryland has recognized the limited utility of the HSA exam and has announced plans to drop the constructive response section of the exam in the future. It is now requiring students to achieve an overall passing score on four HSA tests. But Blair as a school needs to have more of its students passing the English HSA test this year, irrespective of whether the HSA is a useful or valid measure.

Rosanne Hurwitz


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