A Test for Md. Education

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Should students learn something before they are given a high school diploma?

Is it reasonable to think that high school graduates know a little about the world and can manipulate language and numbers at least a bit?

Should they know about the role of the Supreme Court? About photosynthesis? Commas? Algebraic equations?

This seems like a no-brainer. If students are handed high school diplomas without meeting minimal standards of knowledge and skill, they are being lied to. They are being told they are ready to function as adults without being given the ability to negotiate an increasingly unforgiving world.

For that reason I have eagerly looked forward to the day when Maryland students would have to pass exams in government, English, biology and math to graduate. Students have taken the four tests -- High School Assessments, or HSAs -- for years, but the Class of 2009 is the first to be required to pass them.

Around the state, high schools are looking closely at whether their students are learning. For some, paying attention to each of their students is a new experience; they balk at the idea that they are responsible for ensuring that their graduates actually know something.

Yet many educators are stepping up to the plate and working hard to help students pass. And the students themselves are buckling down. Of the juniors who have already taken all four HSAs, 87 percent have passed them.

But that doesn't mean all is well.

Several thousand students in both Montgomery and Prince George's counties in the Class of 2009 have not passed the tests. Those students need a concerted community effort to help them learn enough math, English, biology and government to succeed.

Unfortunately, bills being debated in the Maryland General Assembly would pull the plug on all the work that has been done and should be done. The bills would either remove the HSAs as a graduation requirement or reduce their importance. The argument being made is that the tests are too hard; the subtext, because many of the students who have not passed are poor and minority, is that such students are unable to learn what they need to pass them.

Some years ago, Massachusetts faced the same question that Maryland faces. Like Maryland now, Massachusetts experienced substantial resistance when it came time for the tests to count for graduation, but the state's leadership held firm. The Boston school superintendent at the time, Thomas Payzant, told me recently that the implication that their students wouldn't be able to pass because they were poor or African American or Latino "strengthened the resolve of the urban superintendents," meaning not just him but the superintendents in Worcester and Springfield as well, all of whom supported the assessments. Now, after a rough couple of years, just about all of Massachusetts's students -- including Boston's -- pass the assessments.

Educators and political leaders in Massachusetts had the courage to say that, when given clear goals, students have the ability to learn and teachers and principals have the responsibility to teach. We need the same kind of courage from Maryland's leadership.

-- Karin Chenoweth

Silver Spring

The author is a senior writer at Education Trust.

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