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What if everyone fails the tests?

Education reform...you've heard about it, paid for it, and soon you're going to find out if the extra billions we've put into our schools in Massachusetts has paid off.

You may not like the answer.

This May, students in fourth, eighth and tenth grades will take some mega-tests in science, math and English. State tests in history and social studies start next year. And these tests will set the benchmark to help every student meet the higher expectations the state has set.

Tests are geared to the new curriculum in each subject, and will show if teachers are teaching and students are learning.

Frankly, high failure rates are expected this year.

So school systems will have to take another look at the results to see if education reform is failing, or passing, on a city by town basis. State officials aren't about to lower the standards, so systems with failing grades will have to raise theirs.

They'll have a few years to do it. Until 2003, to be specific. That's when students will have to pass the tests in order to graduate from high school.

Massachusetts has some of the finest schools in the country, but there's room for improvement. For example, only one in three fourth graders is proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the most rigorous and reliable report card for the nation's schools. And only one in four of our eighth graders is proficient in math. Four of ten eighth graders are proficient in science.

Not good enough. And we all know that. In fact, 82 percent of state residents agree that the state needs to set higher academic standards and challenging tests.

Educators are improving skills by teaching the knowledge and skills that pupils must have in core academic subjects. The new curriculum in each subject relates to the tests.

The Massachusetts Board of Education, along with input from parents, business people, colleges and teachers, put curriculum frameworks, with critical skills and essential knowledge, together for Massachusetts. They're basically in use. So now it's time to assess them. Thus, the tests.

Now, I probably couldn't pass the tests. I admit it. But I haven't sat in the classrooms recently, either. And classroom teaching and learning relates directly to the tests. And the tests are tough.

The tests ask students to demonstrate that they can use what they've learned, not just feed back memorized facts. Tests are a combination of multiple choice, essay and open-ended questions.

Bottom line--assessment, accountability.

Some school districts are going forward at high speed. All day kindergartens. Higher standards for new teachers. Teacher training. Smaller classes.

The system may not be perfect. There may be some flaws. Schools may have to change the way they teach. But we can't lower our standards and send our kids out into the world ill prepared.

Change is the operative word. We're in transition now. And the tests will force us to look at where we are, and allow schools to set goals for improvement.

Remember. You've paid for ed reform. And now we have to see if it's working.


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