Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Accountability and the HSA: First, do no harm?

Bob Embry, who is one of the leading education advocates in Baltimore and a man I respect a great deal, penned an Op-Ed in The Baltimore Sun, entitled "Does the HSA Pass the Test?"

It's all about the limiting nature of the HSA and its possible deleterious effect on students in the state of Maryland. No Child Left Behind has saddled American public education with a number of problems; it is an unfunded mandate that rewards schools for improving test scores, but the tests themselves are created by the state, so the states are motivated to make the tests as simplistic as possible, and only in limited subject areas. I am all for accountability in schools, but have yet to find a good system. The HSA is not one of them.

That being said, Embry argues that making the HSA a requirement for graduation does a disservice to the students. First, by making the test (which already has questions of effectiveness in measuring and affecting student achievement) a graduation requirement, does this force schools to put the test subject areas closer to graduation, when more college preparatory classes should be taken? Secondly, how much is it costing the schools? Lastly, what is going to happen with graduation rates this year with the first group of students who are required to pass the test to graduate? Will it result in a host of non-graduates in Maryland?

These are all interesting propositions. The state of MD might very well have some excellent reasons for making the test a graduation requirement. It increases the importance that the students feel about taking the test, which definitely has an effect on achievement. If students know the test matters, they will do better - this is obvious. Plus, making it a graduation requirement certainly makes schools accountable, and this is certainly a good thing (though, as aforementioned, school accountability is sort of a buzz word right now and not necessarily a good one, for it is usually attached to often bad standardized tests.)

As our school has become more focused on the HSA in recent years, I have found that the Juniors the HSA course (a 10th grade course) produces have lower higher-level thinking skills than previous years. One wonders if it's because a lot of their 10th grade work was spent on test-taking skills and multiple-choice skills instead of the higher-level thinking and writing that they must do as a Junior. Or, it could be simply the result of a different group of kids or other different programs. I haven't taught long enough to know, and the data from these tests or even from programs is so problematic because the kids change.

I don't have any answers, but I'm sure glad Bob Embry is talking about it.

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