NEXT WEEK the Maryland State Board of Education will decide whether the high school Class of 2009, which enters eighth grade next fall, will be required to pass tests in English, algebra, biology and government before receiving high school diplomas. The decision to assign high-stakes tests has already been made in principle -- originally, the Class of 2005 was to have been required to pass them -- but has been delayed twice after students did so poorly on preparatory exams that the state school board feared large numbers would fail.
This time around, the state's department of education is arguing against further delays. Since 1997, when the subject of high-stakes tests was first raised, funding has increased for elementary and middle school education, and in particular for the courses needed to prepare high school students for the exams. Other objections have been met as well: Alternative exams are being designed for children with special needs, for example, which may enable them to earn alternative diplomas.
But there is another, further set of reasons to get the testing regime underway. A recent study of six states -- Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and Maryland -- by Achieve Inc., a bipartisan group that advises governors on educational standards, shows that the Maryland exams are less rigorous than those required by other states in many areas and generally test knowledge that, internationally, is taught at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels. Students who can't pass them, in other words, not only won't qualify for further education, they will be ill-equipped for the world of work. If Maryland teachers are unable to ensure that their students meet these minimal standards, then they aren't doing their job.
It is true that the first students who take these tests are at a disadvantage, since they have not had the benefit of eight full years of an education designed to meet higher standards. Yet making the tests obligatory might also, by itself, raise the pass rates. When tests were first given in Massachusetts, fewer than half of 10th-graders passed. But the first class that took the tests to get a diploma achieved a 68 percent pass rate; with extra coaching and further testing, about 96 percent passed. Students take real tests more seriously and study harder to pass them. Teachers take them more seriously, too, and work harder to get students up to the standard. The Maryland Board of Education should seize the chance to make the state's high school diploma mean something.