The Testing Dilemma

Gregory Kane writes today on the dilemma facing state school superintendent Nancy Grasmick over testing.

Grasmick’s taking heat for proposing that students who can’t pass one or more of the high school assessments required for graduation be allowed to complete senior projects in lieu of the exams. Three months ago, Grasmick was telling me about the heat she was taking from parents because the tests were required for graduation.


Perhaps a rehash of what these annoying tests exactly are might be in order. Starting with the Class of 2009 — this school year’s unlucky juniors, who must be wondering why they were picked to get the booby prize — students must pass tests in algebra, biology, English and government to graduate. According to Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, scores of 412 in algebra, 400 in biology, 396 in English and 394 in government are considered proficient. The scoring range for each test is 240 to 650 points.

But students don’t have to score at the proficient level to pass. The minimum score for passing the algebra test is 402 points; for biology it’s 391 points; for English 386; points and for government 387 points. Those of you who are quick at math will note that all those minimum scores are closer to the 240 points at the bottom of the scale than the 650 at the top.

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Like most really difficult questions the answer is remarkably easy and only made difficult by folks who don’t like the answer.

The question at the crux of the issue is whether there should be an empirical standard for successful completion of high school? If we answer “yes” to that question then we have to simultaneously buy into the concept that a number of kids won’t meet the standard if the standard is set with any rigor. If we assume the student body has a standard Bell Curve of intelligence we should expect a lot of those on the left site to fail. We should expect some from the right and left side to fail because of lack of application or a dysfunctional home environment.

If we aren’t willing to acknowledge that fairly basic concept then I move we rid schools of grades and award diplomas to those who manage to sit through the course work.

Once we’ve decided that we will have grades then we need to decide whether the purpose of those grades is making kids feel good about themselves or whether they are to measure how well the learning objectives for a course are met.

In Michael Barone’s Hard America, Soft America he points out that the lodestar of Soft America is our public education system where there are very few standards and the standards that exist can be safely ignored. As a result kids arrive in the workplace totally unprepared to work hard and to be held to standards.

Ms. Grasmick’s response has been the typical response you get from educators when confronted with a rather easy problem but one which will result in conflict and unpopularity if addressed head on. As a result she’s managed to alienate those in favor of standards and those opposed to standards.

That is not the performance that is going to let her survive Governor O’Malley’s stated intent to rid himself of her.

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