Accountability without testing = trouble

Chester Finn:

An unhappy episode in Montgomery County, Maryland, (where I live) reminds us that the quest for accountability options other than standardized assessments can open the door to new forms of chicanery.

First, a bit of background. Maryland’s high school graduation requirements include statewide end-of-course exams in science, algebra, English, and government. Students may substitute passing scores on AP or IB exams in several of those subjects, but it’s accurate to say that the Old Line State has stuck with mandatory EOCs even as a number of jurisdictions have backed away from them. Still, there are kids who have trouble passing those exams, and Maryland has long offered a work-around known as the Bridge Plan. Students who twice fail the EOC in a subject can undertake an individual project in that subject, and if they successfully complete it, their exam failure won’t preclude them from graduating. Ten or 11 percent of Maryland diplomas are typically achieved with the help of the Bridge Plan, and in some parts of the state it has become a major highway to the graduation stage: Almost a quarter of the diplomas in Prince George’s County and close to two-fifths of those in the city of Baltimore are Bridge-dependent. Which is to say, sizable fractions of the girls and boys in those jurisdictions would not be graduating from high school if they were actually required to pass the state EOCs.

The Bridge Plan has been controversial for years now and was much debated—and deplored—during my time on the State Board of Education and the Kirwan Commission, the obvious issue being whether kids who graduate with its help are, in effect, getting diplomas they don’t truly deserve because they haven’t actually met the state’s none-too-demanding academic standards in core subjects. Legislators are currently weighing the Kirwan recommendations, and if those get adopted in full, the Bridge Plan will eventually be history, though much finetuning will need to be done by state education officials before new standards and metrics for “college and career readiness” are set for the long haul, and there is certain be continued pressure to allow some sort of workaround.