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High Failure Rate Prompts Criticism of Maryland's Writing Exam

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The failure of one out of four Maryland 11th graders to pass a state writing examination required for high-school graduation has prompted a rash of criticism of the test and the way it is scored.

Some 13,700 of the state's public-school juniors have not yet passed the examination. In the Baltimore City Public Schools, 46 percent of the 11th graders have failed the test, even after taking it several times.

Students' greatest weaknesses have been in the areas of content and organization, according to state officials.

David W. Hornbeck, Maryland's superintendent of schools, an4nounced late last month that he would appoint a national panel to take another look at the state's exam.

"Because of the questions regarding the test, we will be asking a national panel of experts to examine it independently of us and to give us their advice," he said. "If they recommend that certain changes should take place, we'll make the changes. On the other hand, if they determine that our own test development and grading have been state-of-the-art, then we will quadruple our efforts on the instructional front."

State officials say the test has already prompted an increase in the amount of writing instruction in the schools.

Maryland is one of several states that have recently mandated that high-school students pass a writing test in order to graduate. Others include Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Test Criteria

The Maryland Functional Writing Test, as the exam is called, is one of four competency tests required for graduation, beginning with the class of 1987. Students first take the tests in grade 9 and can retake them until they pass.

The other three tests--in citizenship, mathematics, and reading--are multiple-choice exams. But the writing test comprises two essays, one of which is explanatory and the other narrative.

Each essay is scored on a "holistic" scale of 1 to 4 on the basis of five criteria: content, organization, appropriateness for the audience, sentence formation, and the conventions of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Four trained readers score each test--two per essay.

Criticism of both the test and its scoring method has been reported in local papers in recent weeks. In Montgomery County, for example, critics noted that one-third of the students who failed the test this year missed passing by half a point. In addition, 8 percent of the county's 9th graders enrolled in honors English classes reportedly failed the exam.

"We're concerned about the impact this could have on some kids not being able to graduate and receive a diploma, particularly if they are passing their normal English classes," said William E. Henry, director of information for the county's public schools. "There's got to be something a little amiss when you get youngsters in honors English classes that are not passing."

Beyond 'Functional'

Some critics have suggested that the standard for passing the test is too high, requiring more than a minimal or "functional" level of writing ability.

"We think it's reasonable to require each child to be able to write a composition that has correct grammar and correct spelling and can be understood," said Robert C. Embry Jr., chairman of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners, "but the state standard seems to in-clude a requirement for some sort of style or imagination that not only is over and above grammar and spelling, but seemingly substitutes for that."

Critics have also contended that the method used to score the exam is too subjective and places too little emphasis on the rudiments of writing.

Anne E. Chafin, chief of the state education department's program-assessment branch, agreed that some of the passing tests do contain grammatical and spelling errors. But, she contended, that is because students are assessed on the basis of their second draft of each essay--a point at which most writers are far from perfect.

"In our scale," she said, "spelling and punctuation don't bring your score down unless they interfere with meaning. But if they interfere with meaning, they most assuredly affect your score."

According to Mr. Hornbeck, educators and citizens had agreed in developing the test to focus on substance as well as form.

Ms. Chafin also maintained that the statistical reliability of the scoring method is high. Any essay on which two readers disagree by more than one point is reread by someone else, she noted.

New Dates, More Preparation

In an effort to improve the passing rate on the test, the state has instituted several changes. Until now, the test has been given in April. Beginning next fall, seniors who have not yet passed the exam will have an additional chance to take the test in September, provided they have attended summer school to work on their writing problems.

In addition, the regular testing date will be moved back to January, so that schools receive the results before the end of the school year and can work with students on their weaknesses.

Some school districts are developing "self-help" packets and tutoring programs for students who have failed the test. A number of districts, including Howard and Montgomery Counties and the city of Baltimore, are also training teachers and students--as early as grade 5--in how to administer, score, and take similar tests.

And many districts and schools are said to be assigning more writing, beginning with the 1st grade.

According to Superintendent Hornbeck, "an unprecedented amount of teaching and learning" about writing is being undertaken that would not have occurred without the exam.

"There are times in the midst of criticism that I think the easiest course would have been for us not to make writing a condition of graduation," he said. "But I think the kids would have been the victims had we made that decision."

"Once we get over these initial difficult times with the first class or two of youngsters, the young people are going to be the winners," Mr. Hornbeck continued."They're going to be able to write better, and I think they're going to be able to think better."

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