Tests for graduation in flux

High school exam requirements may change or even be delayed, state superintendent says

February 10, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told lawmakers yesterday that plans for mandatory high school graduation tests for the Class of 2009 are "not carved in stone" and could be changed by the state Board of Education.

The need for a final authorizing vote to make the high school assessments a graduation requirement has long been a part of state regulations. But legislators and education advocates reacted with surprise to Grasmick's comments because all previous indications from the state and local officials have been that the tests will be mandatory for most current high school sophomores.

Grasmick was addressing a joint hearing of the House Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, where lawmakers and advocates expressed concern about whether most students would be able to pass the tests in algebra, government, biology and English. She said the board will evaluate students' performance in 2008 and decide whether to go forward with the requirement.

"We have many options," she said. "Nothing is carved in stone. That students aren't going to graduate isn't true."

She said the board could decide to phase in the requirements for special education students or those with limited English proficiency, a possibility she has mentioned before. She also said that some of the tests could be required later or that the minimum score to pass could be lowered.

In an interview after the hearing, Grasmick said she cannot predict what the board will decide in 2008.

"To say we're not looking at it and all scenarios" is wrong, she said. "We're going to look at that and what it means for all populations."

R. Allan Gorsuch, director of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Education Consortium, who attended the hearing, said he had never heard Grasmick express that much doubt about whether the high school assessments will be mandatory.

"I don't think there is a single parent of a ninth-grade child in Maryland who doesn't think he or she has to pass the HSA to graduate," Gorsuch said.

Del. Charles E. Barkley, a Montgomery County Democrat, said it was news to him that no decision had been made on whether the tests are required.

"Every flier the PTA puts out says they count now," Barkley said. "It bothers me when I look at the budget, and we're spending $100 million on tests that don't count."

Grasmick said she has tried not to emphasize the possibility that the tests won't count for the Class of 2009 because students wouldn't prepare for them if they thought they weren't important.

Some of the advocates who testified at the hearing said that it would be a blessing if the state backed off from making the tests mandatory because they believe students haven't been adequately prepared for them. Mark Woodard, education director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said the problem is particularly acute for minorities and students growing up in poverty.

The pass rates for the tests last year ranged from 60 percent in English to 74 percent in government. But the rates for minorities and children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches are consistently lower, by as much as 20 percentage points.

"We have to ensure there are targeted initiatives, targeted programs, particularly for high school students," Woodard said. "Right now, it looks like tens of thousands of them are at risk."

The tests are hard for school districts to prepare for, particularly because they are already struggling to meet the federal requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, said William J. Phalen Sr., president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and a member of the Calvert County board.

"Local boards continue to have grave reservation about having HSAs count as graduation requirements for the Class of 2009," he said.

But others said the challenges facing students and school systems aren't as grave as the initial test results would suggest. Haywood Perry, a junior at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's County, testified that many of his peers didn't take the tests seriously because they knew their class doesn't have to pass them.

"Some took the opportunity to take a nap, as some of you are now," he said, eliciting chuckles from the legislators. "Some took the chance to show their artistic skills by filling in bubbles randomly."

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit that helps states improve their academic standards, said Massachusetts students failed their high school assessments at high rates until they became mandatory. Scores improved drastically that year, he said.

No matter what the board eventually decides, Grasmick said, it's crucial for parents to emphasize the importance of the tests. If students aren't prepared for them, they won't be ready to compete in the global marketplace, she said.

"I would like them to be thinking, `It's really important that my child can demonstrate that he or she has mastered the material,'" Grasmick said. "Please encourage your child because we want them to have the best opportunities for life."


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