Principals, business leaders and education activists from across Maryland urged the state school board yesterday not to abandon plans for high school graduation exams, and their lobbying appeared to succeed. State school board President Edward Andrews -- who a month ago threatened to propose that the board kill the tests during a critical vote scheduled for this morning -- said yesterday that the testimony persuaded him to keep pushing ahead with the core of the state's plan for a rigorous set of tests.
"I think what you hear is what you hear, and the people want us to move ahead," Andrews said after the board meeting.
Nevertheless, state school board members are expected to vote today to drop the new high school exams as a graduation requirement, saying that there's too little funding in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget for next year to adequately prepare elementary and middle school pupils.
The compromise of moving forward with the testing program while delaying a requirement that students pass the exams to earn high school diplomas emerged yesterday as the preference among those who testified before the board.
"This momentum must not be lost," said Sherri-Le Bream, principal of Westminster High School in Carroll County and Maryland's current Secondary Principal of the Year. "But I do not feel we can link the success or failure students may experience [on the tests] to high school graduation at this time."
Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said, "I don't see it as a fallback or a retreat. We're going to put the guillotine out there eventually on these tests."
The high school exams are being developed in English, U.S. government, mathematics and other subjects. They were originally planned as a requirement for a high school diploma beginning with this year's seventh-graders, the Class of 2005.
The tests -- which would replace the Maryland Functional Tests -- are intended to be the last step in Maryland's sweeping education reform effort, which dates to 1989 and has involved statewide testing in various subjects for all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.
Maryland business leaders have been among the most vocal advocates for requiring the more rigorous tests as a way to improve the quality of graduates entering the work force. Yesterday, they warned that abandoning the tests would derail the reform effort.
"Students must be expected -- not simply cheered on -- to master difficult material in core academic subjects," said Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chief executive officer and chairman of Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. and chairman of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. "A high school diploma must bear testimony to a high level of achievement, not merely to filling required hours of seat time."
Principals said they are excited about the higher standards that would be established by the exams and have been working with their teachers on ways to improve instruction to better prepare students.
"The achievement data it will generate has the potential to spark a renaissance in high school education in Maryland," said Scott Pfiefer, principal of Howard County's River Hill High School, suggesting that test results would pinpoint areas in which schools need to improve.
Pfiefer and other principals said that if the board abolishes the exams, the decision will damage the credibility of teachers and school administrators who have been getting ready for the tests.
"It would hurt the integrity and credibility of the people who have committed to the reforms," said Jim Dryden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals.
State school board members had been threatening over the past few months to kill the tests because the governor gave them less than half of the $49 million they had requested to prepare children to take the exams and to provide remedial help to students who would be denied diplomas if they failed the exams.
The board's plan -- the subject of intense political lobbying during the last legislative session -- aimed to end social promotion and provide help to low-performing elementary and middle school pupils, including mandatory summer school for eighth-graders below grade-level in math and reading.
State educators are scaling back their plans, and state school board members have been struggling with what direction to go with the exams.
At last month's state school board meeting, members indicated they would vote to delay making the tests a requirement for graduation, and several members -- led by Andrews -- said they were inclined to abandon the tests altogether because of the lack of funding from the governor. But now, with Andrews saying yesterday that he has changed his mind, the movement to drop the tests is unlikely to succeed.
Nevertheless, educators said that if students are to take the exams seriously, they must receive individual scores and that those scores must carry consequences, perhaps counting as part of their grades or being marked on their transcripts.
"We support scores for students," said Rose Davis, principal of Baltimore's Douglass High School.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday that she is devising a plan to ensure that students are held responsible for their performance on the tests and that she expects to propose it to the board today.