In Md., 40% fail test in English

Results for 10th-graders are lowest in state's poorest neighborhoods


More than 40 percent of Maryland's 10th-graders failed a new statewide high school English test that will soon be required for graduation, with passing rates particularly low in the state's poorest neighborhoods.

State officials said the results of last spring's test, while disappointing, are not alarming because they expect more students to pass when the score counts toward their diploma.

But the wide disparity in achievement between the highest-performing schools, often in wealthy areas, and dismal results elsewhere raise the question of whether hundreds of students in city schools will be able to graduate.

"I am grateful for these assessments to reveal what has to be done," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "It is a wake-up call in many ways."

At more than 50 schools statewide, less than a third of the students passed the test - while 20 top-performing schools had passing rates of more than 80 percent.

The English II test, given last year for the first time to sophomores, is one of four tests that will be required of this year's ninth-graders to earn a high school diploma and is part of a decade-long effort by the state to raise high school standards.

Baltimore schools had the highest and lowest results. Polytechnic Institute, a citywide, selective high school, was the top performer in the state, with 94 percent of its students passing the test, followed by Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County and Centennial High School in Howard County.

The top schools in Baltimore County were Carver Center for the Arts and Technology and Towson High School. Both schools had 83 percent of their 10th-graders pass the English test, as did Winters Mill High School in Carroll County.

Grasmick said dozens of schools have more than two-thirds of their students passing the test. She pointed to Washington, Allegany and Cecil counties as making good progress.

The state also released yesterday a list of schools that failed to make "adequate progress" for two consecutive years on math and reading tests required by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind law. Baltimore schools continued to have problems, but statewide, 14 schools were removed from the list.

In Baltimore, only nine high schools met the federal standards this year. Digital Harbor High in Federal Hill was put on a watch list, despite a $42 million renovation and redesign of its curriculum.

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School remained on the list of schools needing improvement. But it beat the state average for the English test, with 63 percent of its students passing, and did well on other state assessments. "That school is positioned for success," said Ben Feldman, the city schools accountability officer.

East-side parents and education advocates have recently complained that the school board has dragged its feet in starting a renovation of Dunbar while money went to Digital.

This year's ninth-graders will be the first students who must meet new standards in English, biology, government and algebra. Many of those students already took the algebra test in middle school, but they have not yet taken the other three.

The state school board considered requiring each student to pass all four tests to get a Maryland diploma, but softened its position in the past year, deciding instead on a complex formula. Students can graduate if their combined score from all four tests is at least 1602 - a figure that represents the passing score for each test added together.

So, for example, students who failed the math test could graduate if they got high enough scores on the other three tests. The state also is developing an alternative assessment for those students who are poor at taking tests.

In the Baltimore region, four counties had passing percentages that exceeded the state average of 57.4 percent. In Howard County, 77 percent passed the English test and in Harford, 64 percent.

"It is reassuring but gives us room to improve," said Don Morrison, Harford schools spokesman.

In Anne Arundel, 61 percent passed, and in Carroll County, 71 percent.

In Baltimore County, 52 percent passed. In Baltimore, 35 percent passed.

The numbers released yesterday also indicated the percentage of students scoring so well they are considered "advanced." So while Polytechnic Institute had the highest passing percentage, Montgomery County's Walt Whitman had more students - 63 percent - whose score put them in the advanced category.

Of the 10 schools in the Baltimore region with the highest number of advanced students, five were in Howard County and three in Baltimore County.

Two high schools specializing in the arts, Carver in Baltimore County and the Baltimore School for the Arts, also did well.

The lowest achieving schools will need to make enormous strides in the next several years if they are to prevent large numbers of students from failing.

Grasmick pointed out that schools like Polytechnic Institute and City College, which have many students from poor neighborhoods, do well because of good teaching and curriculum.

"We have to do a better job with our poor kids and our special education kids," Grasmick said. "Those students deserve a quality education."

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