The English and math tests that all Maryland high school students will one day have to pass before receiving a diploma do not reflect what these students should have learned by graduation, according to a new national study.
The study, to be released today by the nonprofit group Achieve Inc., found that the material covered on math exams for Maryland and five other states is equivalent to what students worldwide learn in seventh or eighth grade. The English exams match a version of the ACT, a standardized test used in college admissions, that is typically given to eighth- and ninth-graders.
"None of the tests across the states is overly demanding," said Matt Gandal, director of the study. "It's perfectly reasonable to expect high school graduates to pass these tests."
Achieve Inc., a bipartisan group that aims to help states raise academic standards, looked at the content and difficulty of so-called "exit exams" in Maryland, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas -- states that collectively enroll about a quarter of the nation's high school students and about half of those who must pass state tests to graduate.
Maryland students take the exams, but the scores will not count toward graduation until the class of 2009, or today's seventh-graders. Virginia's Standards of Learning exit exams, which take effect with this year's seniors, were not included in the study.
Of the six states in the study, Maryland had the most rigorous math test, although its reading test was about average.
Still, the math exams in all the states covered mostly pre-algebra and basic measurements, rather than geometry, trigonometry and more complex problem-solving, the study found. On the English tests, about half the questions focused on basic comprehension, and a handful required critical reading.
The results of the study come days before a scheduled vote Tuesday by the Maryland State Board of Education on how to link the state's four High School Assessments in English, algebra, biology and government to a diploma.
The move toward exit exams has been delayed several times over the past decade by concerns that the tests would be too difficult and that schools would not provide enough support to students who fail them, possibly causing them to drop out.
Critics, including the state teachers union, also say it is unfair to judge students' high school careers with a handful of tests.
Results from tests taken last month will not be available until late this summer, state school officials said. Last year, 45 percent of students passed the English exam. Students performed best on the government test, with about 57 percent passing.
Gandal said that those scores are likely to go up once students know that the tests count toward a diploma.
"When it actually counts, the schools will work harder to achieve," he said. "So long as there's a question about whether it's going to count . . . there may not be an incentive to work as hard."
In Massachusetts, for example, about 96 percent of seniors passed the state exit exams this year, compared with less than half when they were introduced in 1998.
Twenty states have exit exams, and four more are expected to implement them by 2009.
In Virginia, students must pass six of the state SOL exams to receive a diploma. A preliminary survey in late March showed that 6.1 percent of the state's seniors were in danger of not graduating, either because of SOL tests or because they are failing their classes. Educators have said that number is lower than they feared, although final results will not be available until after graduation.
The study concludes that the states should use their tests as a starting point for creating more comprehensive and tougher assessments, with more writing on the English tests and less pre-algebra on the math. It also recommends that states raise the passing scores on the tests as student performance improves.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.