Maryland Must Continue to Push for Stronger School Standards

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

THE FEAR that a huge number of Maryland students would be denied high school diplomas because they couldn't pass state-mandated exit exams never materialized. Only 11 students -- out of more than 60,000 in the Class of 2009 -- were barred from graduating after failing the tests. It's likely that the low number is due to changes that made it easier to meet the requirements. But Maryland education officials are right to celebrate the results as a step forward in their continuing effort to strengthen standards.

Last spring's graduating class was the first in the state's history to have to pass the High School Assessments, a set of exams in four core subjects. According to data released last week by the Maryland State Board of Education, 41,066 students met the threshold by passing each of the four tests outright. Another 9,617 met the requirement by combining a requisite number of points across the four assessments; 3,481 completed projects and 531 were granted special waivers. About 2,000 other students didn't graduate because they did not meet their schools' graduation requirements or failed both the exit exams and the local standards.

It was encouraging to hear State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick call the assessments "a new floor, not a ceiling" because it's clear there is still a ways to go. For one, we thought it a bad idea to water down the requirements by allowing waivers or special projects. We recognized, though, the political realities -- the tests were under siege from opponents -- that caused the board to make compromises. Now with the first results in, the board is in a stronger position: It should trim back the waivers while better evaluating the efficacy of the bridge projects, which apparently were done mostly by minority students.

The board should also examine why so many students (16 percent) passed through a combined score. Isn't it important in today's workplace for students to be competent in all the core subjects? Finally, there is the question of whether the tests, and ultimately the curriculum on which they are based, are sufficiently rigorous. Maryland is one of 48 states engaged in an effort to come up with common standards; it's important that the result be a more meaningful high school diploma.

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