Testing proposal moves forward

State school board wants rules drafted on plan to link exams to graduation

December 04, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

With as much misgiving as enthusiasm, the state Board of Education took a significant step yesterday toward withholding diplomas from students who don't pass Maryland's high school tests, beginning with this year's seventh-graders.

The board voted 9-to-2 to direct staff to draw up regulations for implementing the plan. Public hearings are scheduled for early next year, with a final board vote in May.

The rare split vote came after years of discussion and several delays in setting the date when the exams would count toward graduation.

Dunbar Brooks of Baltimore and John L. Wisthoff of Pasadena voted against the plan, presented Tuesday by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Brooks and several board members who voted for the plan nonetheless criticized a provision that would establish a second-tier diploma for students who pass three of the four tests that make up the Maryland High School Assessment.

Such a "local high school diploma," said Brooks, "will be viewed as second-class."

Edward L. Root of Cumberland, the board president, said he was concerned that "C students" would be deprived of diplomas. "If they've worked hard, do they deserve a diploma? Yes, but I don't want it to be a consolation prize," he said.

Still, Root said he'd decided to vote for the testing. "We're doing more than changing a diploma; we're changing the meaning of a diploma," he said.

Board members said they knew some students won't pass the exams and might drop out of school. "We are going to lose some kids," said Jo Ann T. Bell of Bowie, who said she prayed Tuesday evening as she prepared for the vote.

The plan as presented by Grasmick exempts special-education students from having to pass the tests in algebra, biology, English and government. Students who score well on the SAT or similar national tests also would be excused from the tests.

After the vote yesterday, Grasmick said she wasn't "wedded" to the plan she presented. "This was just a starting position," she said. "After talking about it for 16 years, we had to get something in the works."

The final plan may not include differentiated diplomas, she said. "I think most people are comfortable with the special-ed provisions, but the three-out-of-four plan may be a three-year strategy," she said.

And several board members said they would oppose the plan in May if the governor and lawmakers don't fully fund the Thornton education plan, which would increase state aid to schools by $1.3 billion over six years. Without the Thornton money, said Bell, "this is going to be a paper tiger."

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