Maryland State Superintendent of Schools David W. Hornbeck, reacting to the growing controversy about the fairness of the state's functional writing test, announced yesterday that he would ask the state Board of Education to wait until 1988 before requiring seniors to pass the exam to graduate.
The writing test is now scheduled to count toward graduation next year, and about 13,700 of this year's juniors have yet to pass it. Hornbeck's decision, if approved by the Board of Education, means those students will get their diplomas.
Board of Education Chairman Fred Schoenbrodt said board members informally have agreed that the test should be delayed for a year. They will vote on it at their regular board meeting later this month, he said.
Speaking at a morning news conference in Baltimore, Hornbeck said he decided to ask for the delay in part so he can make changes in the way the test is given and graded, including setting up an appeals procedure.
The changes are recommended in a 23-page, $31,000 evaluation of the writing test just completed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J.
Hornbeck commissioned the study last December after the writing test became the subject of acrimonious debate around the state, with parents, teachers and politicians complaining that the grading is too subjective and the test does not measure functional writing. School officials have been puzzled by the large number of failures and do not understand why some good students fail while some poor students pass.
Hornbeck said he also decided to ask for the delay because "it is very important that we have the confidence of parents, students and teachers."
"To delay but that one year will bolster the confidence of the public across the state," he said.
In a related development, a Maryland Senate committee, after listening to Hornbeck's proposal, voted 10 to 1 yesterday against a bill that would have delayed requiring the writing test for graduation until 1989. The same bill was approved by the House of Delegates several weeks ago.
Del. Michael J. Collins (D-Baltimore County), a teacher who introduced the bill in the House, said Hornbeck convinced him that a one-year delay is enough time to make the recommended changes.
"They believe they can do it by 1988, and I believe that if they discover they can't do it in that time they will substantially change their course," he said.
Hornbeck said he will adopt most of the testing service report's recommendations, which include:
*Establishing a procedure so that students who fail the test can appeal their grade.
*Automatically reviewing the papers of all students who have failed the test by half a point.
*Setting up a committee of Maryland teachers to work with State Department of Education staff in approving the test questions, defining functional writing, reviewing the scoring guide, and participating in the scoring sessions. The tests are now scored by a private, out-of-state company that hires graders and trains them how to score.
Hornbeck said two other recommendations -- giving the test in all schools on the same day and returning the tests to the students more quickly than they are returned now, may not be possible. Individual school systems probably would have problems giving the test on the same day and the state might not want to spend extra money to have the tests graded more quickly , he said. It costs the state about $300,000 a year to have the papers graded.
While the study said that the Maryland program "provides state-of-the-art leadership in direct writing assessment," it criticizes the way in which the papers are scored.
It says there is a conflict between what English teachers define as good writing -- for example, proper spelling and grammar and complete sentences -- and what the graders look for. The scoring criteria said that papers will not be marked down for improper spelling, grammar and incomplete sentences unless those things "interfere with meaning."