Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tougher Standards Needed

Ten years ago, Maine public schools outperformed Massachusetts public schools. Now, however, Maine has fallen behind Massachusetts. Why? According to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald: “Spending does not appear to be a factor. Maine in 2003 spent $9,521 per pupil when adjusted for regional cost differences, the seventh highest in the nation and about $1,000 per student more than Massachusetts.” So what is it then?
Evidently, it’s accountability, or lack thereof in Maine’s case.
Massachusetts passed a tough education reform law back in 1993 - the result of a very unlikely political alliance. Liberal Republican Governor William Weld teamed up with his former opponent, conservative Democrat John Silber and good-ole-boy, Boston-Irish political hack Billy Bulger, the Senate President. This unlikely troika got together and did something good; they bucked the state teachers’ union and forced graduating high school seniors to pass a statewide test to prove they could meet minimum standards in English and math by passing a test before getting a diploma. The teachers’ union howled, but the collective political influence of Weld, Silber and Bulger proved too strong for them. The graduation tests took ten years to phase in but by 2003, graduating seniors had to prove they had what used to be just an 8th-grade-level proficiency in English and math. Ninety percent passed the tests - more than almost anybody expected. Why? Because they had to if they wanted a diploma. They rose to the occasion.
In Maine, I remember that in 1995, then-governor Angus King wanted to require the same kind of testing for Maine’s graduating seniors. The teachers’ unions howled here too, but King couldn’t hold out against them. According to the article, “King acknowledges that it may have been a mistake to succumb to political opposition that forced him to compromise and abandon the idea of exit exams. ‘If you want to measure kids in math, why does Brunswick have to have a different test than Windham?’ he asked. ‘Isn't long division the same in both places?’” He was referring to policy Maine adopted which gave every school system the right to design their own “local assessments.” There was also a statewide test called the “Maine Educational Assessment Test” given in 4th, 8th, and 11th grades, but there were no consequences for students who failed it.
Most teachers I talked to back then were against Governor King’s high-stakes graduation tests, but I wasn’t. I got the feeling that if too many of their students were unable to pass minimum-competency graduation tests, they were worried about having to explain why those failing students got good grades in their classes. There was and is a reluctance to admit how many teachers dumb down curricula and inflate grades. Poor results on high stakes tests would shine a strong light on that and force its acknowledgment.
Back in 1988, I published the first column I ever got paid for, called: “Nobody Stays Back Anymore.” The Press Herald paid me $25.00 and I got positive feedback from veteran teachers all over the region. I described how students were passed along from grade to grade although it was clear that an increasing percentage of them had learned very little. That was almost two decades ago and it hasn’t gotten any better, in this state at least. Business owners who paid high property taxes (three quarters of which fund schools in Maine) complained of high school graduates without the language skills to fill out job applications. Who could blame them?
Since the Carter Administration, we’ve had a Department of Education in Washington. Republicans once tried to abolish it, but changed their minds. If the federal government has any reason for being in the education business at all, it should be to institute minimum competency exams in English, math, history and geography for graduating seniors nationwide. States could use them or not as they wished. But, wouldn’t you want to know how your local high school was doing compared to those in the rest of the country? There would be pressure at the state and local levels to use them, but it would be their choice, thereby preserving local control. The feds couldn’t dictate how to get students to pass the tests; that would be up to states or the local districts. All they would do is set a minimum standard. States could continue to develop assessments measuring how far beyond minimum their students get, but at least we’d know that possession of a high school diploma meant you could at least read, write, and do simple math.
If the US Department of Education can’t figure out the essentials of what students must know upon graduation, and then design a way to measure whether they know it or not, it should be abolished.

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