Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Open forum: Fix HSAs first before requiring them for graduation

E-mail this article \ Print this article

by Patricia B. O’Neill

Soon, the Class of 2008 will walk across the graduation stage — the last class that won’t be saddled with the burden of Maryland’s High School Assessment graduation testing requirement.

The Montgomery County Board of Education has strongly urged the Maryland State Board of Education, the General Assembly and just about anyone else who will listen, that this flawed testing program should be delayed until it can be fixed so that the Class of 2009 doesn’t have to be punished for mistakes made by adults.

Proponents of the HSAs use the argument that if you are against the tests, then you must be against accountability. That simply isn’t true. I am proud that the state has been a leader in accountability, long before it was fashionable to do so. But we need an accountability system that leads our students somewhere. My fellow board members and I believe strongly in fair accountability and high standards, but we do not believe that the HSAs as they exist now accomplish either.

The state has created this notion that these tests somehow will make a diploma mean more to the graduate. What will make a diploma mean more is an education system that is aligned with high standards that focuses on preparing students for the college or the world of work.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick and the State Board of Education should stop defending and plugging the leaks in this porous HSA testing program and work to address the real concerns and flaws with the program. I will list a number of these concerns.

While the tests have been 10 years in the making, all of the bugs and flaws have not been worked out and the state is still making adjustments. First, the state is phasing out the essay questions on the tests after the Class of 2009 because it takes too long to score the tests and report the results. Thus, the Class of 2009 is being given a different test and I would argue they are being held to a different standard than classes that come after them.

Secondly, the state has created the cumbersome Bridge to Academic Validation program for students who cannot pass the HSAs. Such a program may be necessary for some students, but this convoluted plan isn’t the way to go. The Bridge is not well thought out and will take up an enormous amount of time and still not really result in a student showing that he or she has thoroughly learned the material needed to earn a high school diploma. In Montgomery County alone, implementing and monitoring this program will cost more than $1.5 million. The projects haven’t all been created or field-tested and yet, somehow this is supposed to be in place for the Class of 2009. This is a classic case of building the plane while you are flying it.

After years of asking for the state to produce modified HSAs for special education students, the test has finally been produced. But it hasn’t yet been field-tested or validated so as a result, this year’s test will contain double the number of items as the regular test. To validate the test, 8,000 students who are taking the HSA are being asked to also take the Mod-HSA. This double testing would not be necessary if the state had planned to validate this before this year. This again means that the Class of 2009 will have a different format than the Class of 2010 and beyond.

As you can see, there are numerous, serious flaws that need to be worked out before we subject students to this graduation requirement. The state should take a testing timeout to fix the problems and then we can move forward with a fair accountability system for our state and for our students. Our students should not suffer because adults haven’t finished their work.

Patricia B. O’Neill of Bethesda has been a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education since 1998 and is a past president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.