Officials consider alternative diplomas

Students could earn second-tier certificate by passing 3 of 4 tests

December 03, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

State school officials proposed alternative routes to the high school diploma yesterday, compromises that would make it possible for students to graduate without passing all four examinations of the Maryland High School Assessment.

Under the plan outlined by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, students could earn a second-tier diploma by passing three of the four tests.

Students with disabilities would not have to pass the state exams in government, English, algebra and biology, though they would have to take the tests. The plan would become official with the class of 2009, this year's seventh-graders.

The state Board of Education will vote this morning on whether to authorize Grasmick's staff to draw up regulations governing the plan. A final vote would come in May, after a period of public comment.

In recent weeks, the department and state board have been deluged with complaints about the tests from parents, advocates and such groups as the state teachers and school boards associations. About half the state's high school students failed unofficial exit exams this spring. Three-quarters of African-American students failed the algebra test, while 91 percent of special-education students failed the English test.

Opponents of the tests predict that thousands of students would be denied diplomas.

In addition to the second-tier "local high school diploma," Grasmick proposed three other graduation alternatives: a diploma for special-education students; a "certificate of program completion" for severely disabled students; and a diploma for students who score well on the SAT and other reputable national exams.

The state board, which has delayed requiring the exams for graduation several times, most recently in August, spent most of yesterday grappling with the policy and listening to critics.

"It would be unfair to make me work this hard and not let me graduate school with all my friends," said 13-year-old Vincent Piscano Jr., a student at Sudbrook Magnet School in Baltimore County who has autism.

Earlier, the board heard from Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that supports exit examinations. American high schools are in deep trouble, Haycock said.

Nineteen states have mandatory high school exit tests, and several are denying diplomas to those who can't pass. When passing the tests becomes mandatory, Haycock said, "this grabs the attention of students, teachers and policymakers," and pass rates increase by as much as one-third the first year.

The new tests will replace the Maryland functional examinations, which students have had to pass for more than a quarter-century. Grasmick reminded the board that the functional tests were greeted in the 1970s with similar predictions of doom. Today, students routinely pass.

"This is like a bad dream coming true," said Sue Allison of Marylanders Against High-Stakes Testing, as yesterday's long board meeting came to a close. But Sylvester E. McKay, president of Baltimore City Community College, testified that 95 percent of new students at his school require remedial work and that 3,000 of 10,000 students each semester are in expensive remedial classes.

"For two generations," said state board member Philip S. Benzil of Westminster, "we've been giving a piece of paper to kids who really have failed."

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