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Editorial - How best to test?

December 11, 1997

Washington County is one of "eight rapidly improving school systems in Maryland," according to state education officials who announced the results of the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program Thursday. Since 1993, this county has gained 15 points on the overall school performance index, with students scoring above state averages in 11 of the 12 areas. It sounds like the local system is moving in the right direction.

If that is true, credit the hard work and dedication of faculty, administrators, students and their parents. But a contributing factor may be that seven years after the state began this program, everybody's beginning to get the hang of it.

It has long been our view that one of the most counter-productive things the state board can do is to introduce a new initiative, then tinker with it a year of so later, before local systems have a chance to get all the kinks worked out. Without time to see what works and what doesn't, schools are continually experimenting, with no ability to measure results reliably because the conditions of the experiment are constantly being changed.

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A case in point: Now that MSPAP seems to be moving the system in the right direction, the state board is instituting a new series of tests students will have to pass before they graduate from high school.

The tests will be phased in over four years, at a total cost yet to be determined, in a project that Buzz Bartlett, director of corporate affairs for Martin Marietta and a member of the state board, says will require a "Herculean effort" to complete.

It is being done, the state board says, because of business leaders' concerns that many students graduate without the skills needed in the modern workplace.

But as any good business manager will tell you, the place to address problems with products is not at the end of the assembly line, but with quality checks at different points along the way. The MSPAP approach - measuring how well the system is working long before graduation- seems more sensible than this latest round of tests, which will tell school officials far too late that the system didn't do its job.

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