Grasmick seeks hold on testing

State funds insufficient to prepare students for exams, she says

$49 million requested

School board OKs private firm to take over 3 city schools

March 22, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed yesterday that the state school board back off forcing students to pass a new series of tough high school examinations for graduation -- threatening a severe blow to Maryland's education reform effort.

The state board also moved forward yesterday with its plans to take over three failing Baltimore elementary schools, agreeing for the first time to a contract with a private company, Edison Schools Inc., to assume control July 1.

The move to detach the new tests from Maryland's high school diploma requirements comes as state educators are resigning themselves to the likelihood that Gov. Parris N. Glendening will fund little of the $49 million they are seeking to end social promotion and provide more help to low-performing elementary and middle-school pupils to eventually meet the demands of the new high school tests. Today's seventh-graders would be the first required to pass the graduation tests.

"Unless we get a substantial amount of money, I do not think we can meet the legal test or the moral test of withholding a property right in the state of Maryland," Grasmick told the board.

A spokeswoman for Glendening said yesterday that the governor intends to come up with some money for the plan in a supplemental budget request in the next two weeks. "He's not going to fund it at the full amount, but he is working with the legislators," said press secretary Michelle Byrnie. She called Grasmick's proposal "a bit premature."

Legislators, educators and the state's business community have been furiously lobbying the governor for funding for the board's $49 million plan, saying the money is critical to ensure that thousands of students are able to pass the exams and receive diplomas.

Legislators are attempting to craft a plan that would fund at least a small portion of the proposal, which includes mandatory summer school for eighth-graders performing below grade level in math or reading.

The state has been developing the examinations in English, U.S. government, math and other subjects, with the intention that they be required to earn a high school diploma beginning with the Class of 2005.

The tests are the last major piece of the state's sweeping education reform effort that began in 1989 and has primarily involved statewide tests in various subjects for third- , fifth- and eighth-graders. Maryland's business community has sought the series of more rigorous high-school tests to improve the quality of graduates entering the work force.

"The bottom line is if we don't do these tests, we truly would lose a great amount of momentum we have built up in reforming the public high schools of Maryland," said Robert C. Rice, assistant state superintendent for research and development.

Grasmick's proposal -- which a majority of the board appeared prepared to support -- aims to keep the state moving with the tests, while temporarily severing the link between the exams and graduation requirements.

Using the exams for graduation requirements "is just plain unethical" without the $49 million plan to give students help, said state board President Edward Andrews.

Instead, students would take the tests and find out how they did, but results couldn't prevent them from graduating. When Grasmick feels there is enough state funding to prepare low-performing students to pass the tests, she said she would recommend the board resume its plan to link the exams to diplomas.

"It sends a clear message to the powers above that we have to have this money," said student board member David M. Iseminger.

The approval of the five-year contract with Edison marks the state board's first effort to take over schools and hand control of them to a for-profit company. The board voted last month to assume control of Gilmor, Montebello and Furman L. Templeton elementaries, three of the city's lowest-performing schools. It spent the last six weeks deciding between Edison and another private company, Mosaica Education Inc. Both are based in New York.

In selecting Edison, the board chose the nation's largest publicly traded school management company, which operates 79 schools in 16 states. Edison uses a reading curriculum developed at the Johns Hopkins University -- Success for All -- and would add an hour to the school day and at least 20 days to the 180-day school year. All pupils in third grade and above at the three schools would receive free home computers.

"Both of our panels recommended Edison, from both the financial side and the programmatic side," Grasmick said. "They were willing and able to tailor their instruction program to our Maryland learning outcomes."

Under the takeover -- known as reconstitution -- teachers at the three schools would be allowed to reapply for their jobs, but they would be working for Edison, not the city public schools.

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