About 50 Marylanders sounded off on the state's proposed high school exit tests yesterday, and at the end of a long afternoon, schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick pronounced the exercise "affirming."
Parents, students, public officials, teachers, principals and school board members took to a microphone at Education Department headquarters in Baltimore to comment -- in three minutes -- on the new tests, expected to be approved next month by the State Board of Education.
The tests in English, algebra, biology and government were praised by about a third of the speakers and opposed by another third. The rest of those who testified suggested amending the program or delaying the start -- it's scheduled to be official with the high school class of 2009, this year's seventh-graders.
"It's badly motivated and badly implemented," said Elliott Wolff, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County. But Brady Walker of the Maryland Association of Student Councils said his organization endorsed the exit tests. Walker said students would take the tests seriously once they realized the results counted for graduation.
Several advocates for disabled students argued for alternative tests for those who have trouble with paper-and-pencil tests. In unofficial testing last year, 7.4 percent of disabled students passed the English test; 43 percent of regular education students passed it. Grasmick has appointed a task force to look into alternatives to the tests, known collectively as the Maryland High School Assessment.
Karen Carter, a Howard County mother whose 19-year-old son, Reed, overcame autism to earn a diploma from Wilde Lake High School last year, was among many speakers who urged the board not to tie graduation to a single test.
"We can't let that happen," said Carter. "It would be like saying to a blind person, `Here, read this paper.'"
Reed Carter spoke of his struggle to graduate. Had his success depended on one test -- and had he failed -- "I would be disappointed, lonely and unhappy," he said.
Harsh criticism of the testing program came from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and several local board members. The association urged the state board to delay implementation, saying there are too many unanswered questions, including who will pay for the remediation of those who fail.
And Susan Allison of Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing suggested that board members take the tests before they approve them. "They should resign if they don't pass," she said.
Grasmick and board members sat through three hours of testimony without comment. "None of these people were forced to say anything," the superintendent said after the session. "I was impressed by the number of principals who praised the program and by the statement of the student association. It was quite affirming."