MARYLANDERS worried about their state Board of Education's recent decision to institute mandatory high school graduation tests need look no farther than Virginia for a shred of comfort. According to Post reporter Rosalind S. Helderman, who put together the statistics, fewer than 100 Northern Virginia seniors, out of a total of 20,300, failed the standardized exams now required for graduation. Some didn't manage to graduate for other reasons, but the tests themselves proved not to be the massive obstacle to a high school diploma that many in the state -- and in neighboring Maryland -- have feared they would be.
Critics have questioned whether the numbers mean anything more than that students have learned how to take tests or that tests have been "dumbed down" to the point where they aren't meaningful. Virginia education officials argue, with some justification, that at the very least these numbers illustrate the success of the focused training they have provided to students who failed the exam on the first try, including summer schools as well as special courses and study materials. Over the next few years, the number of required subjects will expand in Virginia to include math, science and history, as well as English reading and writing. But the argument about whether the tests mean anything or demonstrate that graduating seniors have the skills they need in the workplace should continue. Recent studies of other state exams have shown that most do not reflect even the the minimum skills that employers expect from high school graduates, and Virginia's are not intended to reflect anything but basic skills either. Schools may choose not to set standards, but the job market will, so it is only fair for states to regularly re-evaluate their standards and strive to make them meaningful.
For those looking to what else Virginia may have done right, it is also important to note that Virginia's system is not inflexible. Students can use other kinds of exams, including Advanced Placement tests, to replace the state's own Standards of Learning tests, which means students are not wasting time studying for tests that are too easy. At the same time, "special" diplomas are awarded to special-needs students, for whom tests are modified. Exams are also attached to particular courses, so that they reflect work students do in class and can be repeated indefinitely. None of this is a blueprint: Maryland and others should create their own systems. But the news, at any rate, should cheer up Maryland educators who have been worried that high-stakes testing must bring about high levels of failure.