BALTIMORE, MD — When states first began requiring students to meet minimum course requirements and pass competency tests before graduating high school, some educators worried that the new standards would cause students — especially minority and disadvantaged students — to fail at higher rates and drop out more often than was already the case.
Their thinking was that these students were already failing to meet existing standards. Raising standards, they argued, would simply force them further into an educational limbo.
As it turned out, the exact opposite happened. Although initial rates of passing were low, school systems with minimum standards report that more of their students are passing and — perhaps the biggest surprise — dropout rates are stable or declining.
In light of this, some states are now deciding that they should go beyond minimum standards and adopt a more rigorous academic experience, not just for those students thought gifted, but for everyone.
Although several states have begun efforts in this direction, one of the few states to link that kind of reform to higher education is Maryland, which has been slowly putting into place a system-wide reform that will eventually make a high school diploma not only a certificate of mastery, but a ticket to good jobs, higher education and even scholarship money.
“I want kids to have a diploma they’re proud to hang on the wall,” is the way state board of education member Walter Sondheim Jr. put it.
Late in January, Maryland took a big step toward its plan to require high-level assessments when the state school board asked testing companies for bids to design ten tests, to be taken throughout the high school years.
To make sure the tests are challenging for all students and to guard against pressures to “dumb the tests down,” state educators plan on having multiple levels. For example, achieving a score of 80 on the exams might guarantee high school graduation. A score of 85 or 90 might garner the student a special note on the diploma that he or she had graduated with merit or distinction. Higher scores might guarantee the ultimate reward of automatic entrance to a Maryland college and even scholarship money.
In addition, the Maryland Business Roundtable, which represents 70 of Maryland’s biggest employers, has agreed that if this testing procedure becomes a reality, it will encourage businesses to use the diploma and the scores on the assessments as a way to make hiring decisions. A letter of support for the reforms was signed by the heads of such companies as Potomac Electric Power Company, Bethlehem Steed Corporation and Bell-Atlantic-MD.
This approach represents a turnaround of the old worry that teachers will abandon what should be taught in order to “teach to the test.” By putting into place tests they think worthy of being taught to, Maryland officials are basing their reform on the expectation and hope that teachers will teach to the test. Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, tells teachers in a recent newsletter that “teaching to the test is in favor.”
If Maryland in fact implements these changes, it will in some ways be mirroring what some other nations do. In Germany, for example, admission to university and to prestigious apprenticeships are determined in large part by how well students do on exams in their equivalent of ninth- and 10th-grade.
But Maryland officials are not consciously patterning the state’s system after any other nation. “It’s just a matter of thinking through the incentives,” says Christopher Cross, president of the state’s school board and president of the Council for Basic Education. Cross drew a distinction between what he would like to see in Maryland and, for example, Japan, by saying, “Japan doesn’t have the richness of second chances. We’re not a society that would stand for — nor should we — that kind of rigidity.”
Cross wants those high school tests to be what he calls “high stakes,” and withholding diplomas from those who fail them is certainly one way to do that. For planning purposes, officials are assuming that 50 percent of the students will fail the first set of exams and will need to be retested after being provided with more instruction or other kind of help.
Dr. Helen Giles-Gee, associate vice-chancellor for academic affairs of the University of Maryland System (UM) and one of the behind-the-scenes theoreticians of the reform effort, contends that by setting clear, achievable standards and then providing students the support they need to meet them, Maryland will be providing a greater opportunity to all students — but particularly poor and minority students.
“It’s so exciting,” she says. “And it has so much promise.”
The `Seamless Web’
Giles-Gee has been part of the “Maryland Partnership for Teaching and Learning K-16,” or “Maryland K-16” for short. Begun in November by the chancellor of the University of Maryland System, the superintendent of the state Department of Education and the state’s secretary of higher education, Maryland K-16 has as its charge to make the transition from kindergarten through college a “seamless web.”
Giles-Gee has spent a great deal of time working on one of the many parts of that web: articulation between two- and four-year institutions. Now, after years of work by academics throughout the state, a general education class at Essex Community College is equal to a UM general education class and students may now easily transfer credits between two- and four-year institutions.
She is hoping that the K-16 initiative will develop that kind of fluidity between high school and college so that, for example, a high school senior who is ready to take college-level calculus may do so by taking the class at a local college or at the high school, where a college faculty member will be assigned to teach the subject. “The ideal alignment would be a meshing of real competencies,” she says.
All this requires that Maryland colleges, high schools and businesses expect the same things of high school graduates, and representatives from all those communities have spent the past two years developing a list of what exactly every high school graduate should be assumed to know and be able to do.
“The question asked of them was, `What will it take for you to stop saying that our graduates are unprepared?'” says Dr. Robert Gabrys, assistant state superintendent of research and development, another of the key architects of the reform.
This basic question gets to one of the underlying causes for school reform in the state: higher education institutions have complained that Maryland graduates are unprepared for college-level work and Maryland businesses have complained those who do graduate cannot be expected to know or be able to do much of anything.
“Right now a diploma pretty much means you’ve attended school,” is the way the Maryland Business Roundtable’s associate director, Kathy Seay, puts it.
A low opinion of high school graduate capabilities is not peculiar to Maryland — educators and employers around the country have been voicing similar concerns.
But this complaint of long standing crystallized in Maryland as in issue when the state began, three years ago, to compile an annual report of local jurisdictions and individual high schools on how their graduates do in college. The state’s Higher Education Commission and Education Coordinating Committee now sends an annual report each year detailing whether college freshmen need remediation in math and English, whether they stay in college and what their first grades in math and English are.
That information has galvanized the education world in the state as they realized that a large number — as high as 70 percent on some college campuses — of freshmen require remedial courses.
Even upper-income Montgomery County, just north of Washington, DC, which has long prided itself on what it calls its “national reputation,” does not look too good — with 49 percent of the students it sends to its county community college requiring remediation in math and 24 percent requiring remediation in English.
Every Student an Academician
By the year 2004, as envisioned by educators, remediation classes for recent high school graduates should be a thing of the past in Maryland. By then, if these reforms succeed, all diploma holders will have demonstrated their ability to handle postsecondary work by demonstrating proficiency in math, science, English, social studies and what Maryland is calling “skills for success,” which involves being able to write, speak, solve problems and use up-to-date technology.
Some of this is similar to the regents system in New York, where the top students earn academic regents’ diplomas on the basis of tests. But unlike New York — which could be considered a tracking system in which some are on an academic track and others a; business or vocational track — in Maryland, every student will be expected to meet rigorous academic standards.
Gabrys says the emphasis put on the word “every” is important because it eliminates the source of excuses common among school systems that, when their students fail, it is because they come from what are often called “diverse backgrounds” or “unsupportive” families. “If a student comes to school with disadvantages,” Gabrys says, “it is the job of the school system to compensate, not accept that as a reason for failure.”
For example, says Gabrys, poor students often have little access to books and few adults to read to them. “We might ask what schools have done to make sure students have books and people to read to them.”
Gabrys is drawing a bead on one of the big worries associated with raising academic standards — that the rising tide will not raise all boats, but raise some and sink others.
Giles-Gee agrees that is an issue that bears watching. “How do you make sure the standards don’t become a barrier?” she asked. Part of the answer, she said, lies in making sure that all the resources in the state are all pulling toward the same goals:
That means, for example, that colleges and universities will have to be involved in professional development of teachers already teaching and in changing the teachers education program. One change already in the works is requiring future teachers to have two majors — one in education and the other in the subject they are planning to teach. Another change, launched in January, is to require future teachers to spend a year in the classroom working with classroom teachers.
Mastery at Bowie
Dr. Vernon Clark, provost of the historically Black Bowie State University and a member of the state K-16 task force, has begun implementing some ofthese changes on his campus, which began as a normal school and still has a substantial education program.
“Every student who gets an education degree from Bowie State has to take and pass the National Teachers Exam.” says Clark. This is a higher requirement than is required by the state, which allows teachers several years before they have to pass the NTE.
All Bowie students will also have to pass exams measuring competency in the core curriculum, which most students take in the first two years. “We’ve made a decision to say that every student who receives a diploma has demonstrated mastery of the core curriculum.”
Clark says that implementing Maryland’s reforms will require what he calls a “no-holds-barred approach to quality education” which will include providing alternative settings, ending social promotion and restructuring the way schools are organized. “If a kid doesn’t perform at the level we expect, we will provide support, time [and] intensive interaction.”
In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly (December, 1995) Paul Gagnon of the School of Education at Boston University wrote, “Starting school reform by first deciding what every child should learn strikes most people as only common sense. But to many American educators, it spells revolutionary change. This strategy would give subject-matter teachers, and the educated public, unprecedented power to spur genuine change — change far deeper than questions of school choice, methods, or management.”
By 2004, Maryland should know if that’s true.
RELATED ARTICLE: Percent of High School Graduates Earning Minimum Credits Recommended by National Commission on Excellence for College-Bound Students(*)
1982 1992 White 2.2% 23.6% Black 0.7 21.5 Hispanic 0.5 19.9 Asian 6.0 29.3
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 1995
(*) The minimum credit course combination is as follows: 4 English, 3 social studies, 3 science, 3 math, .5 computer science, and 2 foreign language
RELATED ARTICLE: Maryland’s Reform at a Glance
The goal of the Maryland reform effort is to better prepare each student for study, work and citizenship — as well as that intangible in the U.S. Constitution referred to as the “pursuit of happiness.”
Some of the elements that make up the Maryland reform plan include:
* Clear expectations and standards that every student is expected to meet;
* An assessment system to measure whether students have met or exceeded the standards — distinctions which will be noted on their diplomas;
* An incentive system that motivates students by linking college admission, placement and scholarship money to how well students do on the assessments and tying good jobs to the diplomas and the assessment results;
* Professional development of existing teachers so that they are better able to help their students meet the higher standards;
* Training of new teachers in colleges so that they are well-versed in the content of what they are supposed to teach; and
* Changing the instruction at colleges to reflect the fact that students will be arriving better prepared and expecting a higher level of instruction.
RELATED ARTICLE: Meeting Standards
In the early 1980s, Maryland was one of several states that instituted minimum course requirements and functional tests as a requirement for high school graduation. Initial passing rates for the competency tests — which are considered low-level tests — were shockingly low. For example, only 40 percent of students initially passed the writing test.
After years of professional development to help teachers prepare their students for the exams, changes in course design and teaching materials, the results are now quite different. Last year, 98.5 percent of all 11th-graders had passed the writing test and 99.5 percent had passed the reading test.
Many of the functional tests — which cover reading, mathematics, writing and citizenship — are now routinely given to middle school students to assess whether they need remediation. By ninth grade most students have passed all but the citizenship exams, which are generally given in 10th grade. This is somewhat less true for African-American students than white students, but only somewhat. For example, last year 72.8 percent of African-American males had passed their writing exam by ninth-grade, compared to 84.6 percent of white male students. But by 11th-grade, 95.3 percent of African-American male students had passed, compared to 97.8 percent of white males. The figures look slightly better for females — by 11th grade, 98.3 percent of African-American females had passed the writing exam, compared to 99.7 percent of white females.
All this supports the argument that if students understand what the standards are, understand the stakes involved and get the support they need, they will achieve at much higher levels than they have been asked to do in the past.
RELATED ARTICLE: Beginning at the Beginning
Maryland began one part of its reform several years ago when it began issuing “report cards” to each jurisdiction and each school on how it measured up — both against others in the state and also against set standards. One of the key elements in the report card is how well students scored on new “performance-based” tests administered in third, fifth and eighth grades.
The tests, developed by teachers throughout the state, require some group work and a great deal of writing and analyzing. For example, for the science test one year, third-graders were provided with samples of potting soil and garden dirt, graduated cylinders, beakers of water and other equipment. Small groups of students were required to make two solutions, one from each of the soil samples. Individual students were required to analyze both soil samples and the solutions made from them in a number of ways — color, texture, and so on — writing fairly lengthy responses and using observation, mathematical calculations and scientific terminology.
Students spend days on these tests, which covered reading, writing, language usage, mathematics, science and social studies.
The first year the tests were administered, they prompted a firestorm of criticism. One of many criticisms was that they are very expensive both to develop and to score, in contrast, for example, to the California Achievement Tests, which are purchased and scored rather inexpensively by computer. Maryland estimates it spends about $30 per student each year for its Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests, much of which goes to paying teachers to read and score them.
But one of the interesting byproducts is that the process of scoring provides what one state official called “unobtrusive teacher training.”
“Different sites are vying to score the tests because of the training,” says Robert Gabrys, assistant state superintendent of research and development. About 650 teachers undergo two days of intensive training in order to score about 1 million student responses over the course of the summer.
In the process of scoring the exams, Gabrys said, “They really get a sense of what students around the state can do.”
After each scoring cycle, the scorers write a teacher-to-teacher newsletter about what they have learned from the experience and how they plan on changing their methods of instruction as a result. Principals from the high-scoring schools also write a newsletter in which they share the secrets of their success. The expense of the project thus turns out to be an investment in professional skills that is returned to the classroom.
Another criticism of the tests involved simple glitches, such as the question on the first test that asked students to look out their classroom windows and describe what they saw, a question that baffled students in classrooms with no window. Most of those kinds of problems have been solved, in part, because at the end of each testing period the state solicits comments from teachers and administrators and makes changes in response.
A higher level of criticism was that the test demanded an unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate level of performance. In other words, no child could be expected to meet the required levels asked of Maryland students.
To test that criticism, Maryland administered the test to private school students in Maryland and students in Taiwan and Germany. All of them did better than public school students in Maryland — proving that children could be expected to meet those standards if given higher levels of instruction. (Taiwanese officials liked the eighth-grade exam so much they are hoping to administer it to all Taiwanese eighth-graders in the future.)
As teachers learned more about the test, they have changed their methods of instruction to better prepare their students, and educators around the state have seen a marked change in classrooms.
“[The MSPAPs] have had an enormous effect on the way teachers teach,” says Dr. Richard Towers, principal of a high school in suburban Maryland and an active observer of the changes. “Teaching is much more active and hands-on,” he said, “especially in the primary grades.”
Last year was the third year of the MSPAPs and, when the state issued the latest report card, it was able to show a steady, though slow, increase in the scores. For example, in 1993 — the first year — 28.6 percent of third-graders received a satisfactory score and only 2.1 percent an excellent score on the mathematics test. Last year, the numbers were 42.1 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively. Not only the top school systems are showing improvement but also those considered to be lower-performing, such as Baltimore City.
It is these kids — the ones who have taken performance-based tests since the third-grade — who will first be expected to meet the higher standards of the high school assessments.
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